It was famously said that "where words fail, music speaks." That was certainly the case Friday night at Ted Mann Concert Hall, which filled to capacity with music lovers determined to hear the locked-out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra play with the maestro who raised their profile over the last decade, Osmo Vänskä.

Words, in the past year, have failed to resolve a bitter, protracted labor dispute that on Tuesday brought Vänskä's resignation.

While many grieved they never would see Vänskä conduct again, he surprised the Twin Cities by announcing not one, but three farewell concerts — all sold out — this weekend in Minneapolis. Saturday night's final concert will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. on Classical MPR, KSJN 99.5-FM.

On Friday night, those on stage weren't the only ones who seemed on the verge of tears.

Mary Ellen Niedenfuer of St. Paul, who has attended concerts by the orchestra for 25 years, said she was feeling like it was not only goodbye to Vänskä, but to the orchestra as she knows it now.

"It will take them a long time to come back to what they've been under Maestro Vänskä," she said.

Jill Thompson, who plays viola with the Metropolitan Symphony, agreed the orchestra cannot be the same as it was before the lockout began. "There are too many gaps now, so many players gone."

Many others in the audience echoed these views, but a few voiced optimism.

"These concerts they're putting on themselves, it's a new beginning for the musicians," said longtime concertgoer Ernest Lampe of Minneapolis.

Wearing his trademark simple dark suit and banded-collar shirt, Vänskä strode on stage and began the performance without a word, starting the musicians off with "The Star-Spangled Banner," which caused more than a few chins to tremble in the capacity crowd. He followed with Beethoven's powerfully moving Egmont Overture.

Though the orchestra has seldom played together over the last year and had only three rehearsals with Vänskä before Firday's concert, the old cohesive magic and precision were on full display. Guest pianist Emanuel Ax masterfully played two concerti, Beethoven's No. 3 and Mozart's No. 27, but his primary role for the evening seemed to be projecting an almost heroic affability in the face of an intense collective sadness, making Vänskä and his fellow musicians smile along with the audience.

The fervent activism that has been a factor at previous performances since the lockout seemed toned down at this one. At intermission, trombonist Doug Wright asked the audience to momentarily put all the strife from the dispute aside and make it "all about the music."

Vänskä let the music speak for him through most of the concert, waiting until after the final scheduled number, the Suite from Stravinsky's "The Firebird," to address the crowd.

"Love you, too," he began tearfully, in answer to an earlier boisterous yell from the crowd, "We love you Osmo!" "I'm going to miss it here very much, and I'm going to miss this fabulous orchestra," he said.

He grew somber as he introduced his encore, "Valse Triste" ("Sad Waltz") by his fellow Finn, Sibelius. "This is something very emotional, it goes beyond words," he said. "A girl is dancing in a dream, then realizes as it goes faster and faster and she'd like to stop, it's not a dream. She is dancing with death."

He asked the audience to hold their applause, and when the piece was finished grasped the hand of concertmaster Erin Keefe, then walked offstage.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046