The coffee was on and clusters of patrons waited quietly with their hands folded -- a full half-hour early. Yes, this clearly was a Lutheran church, not a concert hall.

But on this night, Trinity Lutheran in downtown Stillwater had traded its ecclesiastical purpose for a date with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Conductor Roberto Abbado would lead the group through Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, with guest cellist Bion Tsang.

Forty times each season, the orchestra leaves the Ordway Center in downtown St. Paul and plays its music in Stillwater -- and Arden Hills, Wayzata, Eden Prairie, Apple Valley and neighborhood locales in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The SPCO's theory is simple: Hit the suburban beltway and play for people on their own turf.

The neighborhood strategy plays a key role in the SPCO's larger initiative to land its music on the ears of more people. About five years ago, the orchestra expanded its satellite venues from three to seven; then it dropped ticket prices to $10-$25 across the board; lastly, the SPCO launched free online streaming of its audio archives.

"It's the organization saying, 'How can we add more value to this community?' and everyone agreeing that part of how you do that is by serving more people," said Jon Limbacher, the SPCO's vice president and chief operating officer.

Mary Piontek of Stillwater probably had not read up on all the SPCO strategy before the recent concert at Trinity Lutheran. All she knew was she had a $10 ticket -- "ten dollars for a world-class orchestra; ten dollars!" She and her husband, Frank, have season tickets to the Stillwater series and she plans "to keep them until I die."

The Pionteks, who "leave the house two minutes before the concert starts," were hardly alone in the sweater-and-slacks crowd. Trinity, with 518 seats, sells out on subscription alone.

"It's such a community event," said Carol Carver, who was in charge of the coffee-and-cookie concession that night. "It's nice to see your friends and neighbors. And parking is easy."

Gretchen and James Davidson of Stillwater, SPCO subscribers for more than 25 years, attended concerts at St. Paul's UCC church, the orchestra's neighborhood venue on Summit Avenue. They have moved out to the country and now, with their friends, Jim and Mary Smith, enjoy the convenience of Stillwater.

"It's so handy for us," said Mary Smith. "There's no traffic."

Liz and Neal Nordling, who live in Grant Township, occasionally see the SPCO at the Ordway, but as Liz pointed out, it's 22 miles from their house to downtown St. Paul. "This is half the distance."

Small-town charm and informality aside, once these patrons gathered in the square sanctuary with its timbered apse and exposed-brick walls, the SPCO delivered a committed reading of the Russian masters. As Tsang speared the highest notes of Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme," the aesthetic beauty of live performance came into full relief with a pure sound, the animated personality of musicians engaged in high art and the community of a full audience.

Doubling down

The SPCO had been doing neighborhood concerts for many years -- at St. Paul's UCC, Temple Israel in Minneapolis and Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie. The results were middling, so in 2005 the company made a substantive decision. Invoking the spirit of Adam Smith, the SPCO lowered prices in hopes of increasing demand. The organization then gambled on more venues and 40 performances a season (there are 44 concerts at the Ordway). Total paid neighborhood attendance rose to 33,000 in 2009-10, from 15,000 in 2003-04. Subscriptions rose to 2,600 households, from 1,000.

"We said there's a kernel of a really good idea here," said Limbacher. "So we lowered prices and found a huge audience and expanded the venues to seven."

The orchestra would like to expand, but a tough economy has forced staff cuts in the past two years, which reduces some operational capacity. Although the concerts sell well, performing-arts events rarely cover costs on ticket sales.

Go west

Each venue takes on the characteristics of its distinctive neighborhood. Stillwater has a Scandinavian, small-town feel. The following night, 50 miles across town in the high-powered western suburbs, Wayzata Community Church exhaled New England elegance. A fortress of Congregationalism, the church has a tidy library, colonial furniture and parquet floors in the airy foyer. This venue, with 670 seats, sold 92 percent for four concerts last season.

David and Terri Wood have been driving the 10 minutes from their Maple Plain home ever since the Wayzata concerts began four years ago. They've been to the Ordway, but how can you beat this?

Richard Oberg and Susan Doyle are regulars, too, with seats right up front, not far from Bob and Mary Jo Newman of Greenwood. Bob appreciates being able to stretch his long legs on the aisle. Retirees Charlie and Marlys Rosengren of Plymouth pointed out that the SPCO "fits our budget a little better." Dave Wagy of Shorewood used to have season tickets for the Minnesota Orchestra, but "it was tough to get there after work on Friday nights."

As was the case in Stillwater, this is a sophisticated audience. They listen intensely, collective murmurs releasing the palpable tension when Tsang again dispatches the "Rococo." When the cellist leaves the stage, beads of sweat are visible on his forehead as he passes just a few feet from the Woods and the Newmans. The intimacy is a rare opportunity for music patrons.

"From my perspective, these are the same kind of people who come to the Ordway, except that they're coming from neighborhoods," said John Kjarum, who sets up the orchestra staging for these venues. "They love that we come out to them."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299