A bitter lockout that silenced one of the country's top orchestras for more than 15 months ended Tuesday when musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra approved a contract that will bring them back to the stage in early February.

Hours earlier, the orchestra board had approved the terms of a three-year deal that cuts salaries and benefits roughly 15 percent. The average salary would drop to $118,000 in the first year, from $135,000 under the expired contract. There are small salary increases in the second two years, which musicians said would reduce the total cut to 10 percent. Musicians would pay significantly more for health care.

"The musicians look forward to going home to Orchestra Hall after 488 days," clarinetist Tim Zavadil, lead negotiator for the musicians, said at a news conference Tuesday evening. "We're pleased there is a settlement, and we're looking forward to getting back on stage."

Zavadil declined to report the vote total or to characterize the mood of the musicians.

"We took care of the business we had to take care of, and we're ready to work with the leadership to make sure the orchestra thrives," he said.

The agreement stipulates the musicians will return to work on Feb. 1, after being locked out in the longest work stoppage for any symphonic orchestra in U.S. history. They are expected to play a concert soon after that.

Board negotiator Doug Kelley said at a separate news conference Tuesday that the contract was, "A true compromise. No one got everything."

Kelley said the deal will keep the musicians in the top 10 nationally in terms of income at the same time it provides cost savings for the board.

"It won't solve our deficit problem, but it will go a long way," he said. The orchestra had sought to save $5 million in labor costs. The new contract saves them $3.5 million in the first year.

In addition to the salary figures, the contract allows the board flexibility in hiring musicians. There are 77 musicians in the orchestra now, and the contract stipulates a full complement of 95. However, the terms of this deal require the board to hire only seven musicians over the three years, bringing the force to 84.

Two other financial provisions would allow the orchestra to pay substitute musicians (or those added for specific performances) 90 percent of base pay, and to provide revenue sharing if the orchestra's endowment performs at specified levels over the life of the deal. Musicians also agreed to changes in work rules.

The status of former music director Osmo Vänskä remains unclear. He resigned Oct. 1, after the two sides were unable to reach agreement. Kelley said Tuesday that the negotiators wanted to take "one step at a time, so we decided to we'd get the contract settled and then take up that question."

Bill Jones of St. Paul, who with his wife, Nancy, and a group of friends has had season tickets for more than 20 years, said, "We are so very pleased. We'll all be going back. It'll take some time to recover, but I think they will."

Concerts canceled

The settlement announced Tuesday resulted from back-channel talks that quietly took place over the past several weeks. Zavadil and Kelley said board members who were not part of the original negotiating committee met with musicians and eventually those discussions grew into formal talks.

"The last two weeks have felt like traditional labor negotiations," Kelley said.

That contrasted with the fractious and intermittent bargaining that had taken place since the two sides began talking in April 2012. Six months later, musicians were locked out after rejecting a proposal that would have cut some salaries up to 40 percent, according to the board's figures. The entire 2012-13 season eventually was canceled, as well as the first five months of the current season.

The musicians, who have been performing concerts on their own for more than a year, have announced several upcoming concerts. Leadership on both sides will determine if those programs can be folded into the subscription season.

Budget ups and downs

The long dispute brought national attention to the Minnesota Orchestra, which won praise for its excellence under Vänskä. Observers were surprised that an orchestra with a seemingly healthy endowment and a $50 million expansion at Orchestra Hall would be asking for drastic salary cuts.

After balancing budgets for three consecutive years, in part by making unusually large withdrawals from the endowment, the board announced a $2.9 million deficit in 2011 and a $6 million deficit for fiscal 2012.

At the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, labor negotiations coincidentally broke down, and musicians were locked out in November, 2012. A deal was struck last April that brought the players back at a reduced workforce and with salaries cut an average of 20 percent.

Musicians at other orchestras, as well as Minnesota patrons, supported the union through the lockout, helping to finance concerts and creating a hardship fund for strapped members. Musicians announced in December that they had received $650,000 in pledges, as well as some concert income.

"There is a lot of love for this organization as a whole," Zavadil said Tuesday evening. "We always knew we could get this done."

Outside mediators

State, city and civic leaders all sought to end the dispute. Gov. Mark Dayton last spring summoned both sides to his office to see if they would agree to let a mediator help ease a deal.

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell eventually got involved, although he did not figure in the talks after October.

Over the past 15 months, musicians lost several million dollars in salaries and benefits. They were eligible for unemployment, although that eligibility was set to expire in February. Also, musician eligibility for COBRA health benefits was set to expire in March. Many musicians played with orchestras around the country on a fill-in basis. Some took full-year appointments with other ensembles. Some left permanently.

Both sides acknowledged Tuesday that the slings and arrows of the past 15 months have resulted in some "scar tissue," as Kelley put it.

"You don't lock out someone for this long without there being lingering feelings," said Blois Olson, a spokesman for the musicians. "The real test will be the future weeks and months and getting audiences into Orchestra Hall."

When the Detroit Symphony's six-month strike ended in 2011 with an 11 percent pay cut and other musician concessions, the orchestra performed a concert a mere six days later.

"Our goal was to get right back to business," said president and Detroit Symphony CEO Anne Parsons, who, like Minnesota Orchestra president Michael Henson, was the subject of pointed criticism from musician supporters. "We started with the one thing we could all agree on — for everything to be different."

Now that the contract has been settled, Jon Campbell will step down as board chairman. That had been agreed upon at the annual meeting in December. Kelley said Henson will remain as CEO and president.

Staff writer Kristin Tillotson contributed to this report.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299