It had the earmarks of an opening gala. The musicians wore their formal duds, the conductor was a familiar face and the hall was filled to capacity with 2,100 listeners. But the crowd that attended Thursday night's concert by the Locked Out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra (LOMOMO) at the Minneapolis Convention Center brought with it a mixture of agenda and appreciation for classical music.

This was to have been the opening night of the Minnesota Orchestra's 110th season (including all those years as the Minneapolis Symphony, going back to 1903). However, musicians have been locked out since Oct. 1, and the first six weeks of the season have been canceled after the union's contract expired and negotiations to achieve a new deal failed.

So the players, as did locked-out musicians in Indianapolis and Atlanta this fall, took matters into their own hands. They pooled their own resources and significant gifts from donors and rented the convention center auditorium for a program led by Conductor Laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who noted that this was his 53rd season with the orchestra. They also had a little help from their friends. Members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra stepped in to fill spots left open because Minnesota players have taken temporary gigs in other cities.

Michael Henson, the orchestra's president and CEO, said in a statement Thursday that he appreciates the musicians' desire to perform, "but this doesn't alter where our negotiations stand or the fiscal realities we face." Management has said it must cut expenses because of budget deficits, and has proposed salary cuts of at least 30 percent.

The turnout Thursday was similar in size to a typical Minnesota Orchestra crowd. Patrons rose enthusiastically to applaud the musicians, some of whom were visibly moved, when they took the stage. The audience again stood for Skrowaczewski, who quickly launched the band into his arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Many were longtime fans of the orchestra. Others were driven by their support of the musicians and the sense that this was a historic night.

"I'm a union carpenter, and I'm supporting their cause," said Ken Johnson of Coon Rapids, who with his wife, Beth, made his first trip ever to a classical music concert.

Jim Ahrens of Minneapolis said he has friends on both sides of the dispute. "It's a bad situation for everyone," he said. "But this is really an event."

Skrowaczewski, who was music director from 1960 to 1979, agreed to help with the concert because he said he is "terrified" that the lockout and management's proposal for steep financial cuts will destroy the orchestra. The board's priorities, he said, are wrong -- principally illustrated by a $52 million Orchestra Hall renovation that was begun last summer.

"The lobby is the secondary thing," he said in an interview this week. "It needed to be a little bit better, but to put big money in completely doing over the lobby while they don't have money to pay the orchestra is a big mistake."

Skrowaczewski said management should fight for more money from donors and government sources.

"This state has many billionaires and is building four sports stadiums," he said. "The proportion of expenses at the university and the sports stadiums is not in balance with what the arts need."

Orchestra management has said it wants to cut $5 million from labor expenses -- about 33 percent of current costs. The current contract proposal would get that money through cuts in base and overscale salaries as well as benefits and through a reduction in pay for substitute and extra musicians. The numbers also assume an orchestra size in the mid-80s. Currently, 95 positions are contracted, but because of vacancies and leaves, the ensemble has 81 musicians.

Civic leaders step in

Civic leaders are slowly stepping into the dispute. The Minneapolis City Council on Friday will consider a resolution from Council Members Elizabeth Glidden and Betsy Hodges, urging the two sides to restart negotiations. It also calls on management to provide the independent financial analysis as requested by the musicians, and asks the council to be on record discouraging lockouts as a means of resolving labor disputes.

Mayor R.T. Rybak issued a statement saying he is "willing to do whatever I can to end this very serious situation."

In St. Paul, where members of the SPCO face a potential lockout on Sunday, Mayor Chris Coleman has sent a letter to both sides, offering his assistance in the process. A spokesman said Coleman hadn't received a formal response.

Neither side in the Minnesota Orchestra dispute appears ready to return to negotiations.

Labor-relations expert John Budd, of the Carlson School of Management, isn't surprised. "Given that they have already canceled five weeks out, I wouldn't expect to see anything soon," said Budd.

Public officials, he said, have a limited ability to forge a deal.

"The one thing they can do is use the bully pulpit and offer space for negotiations," Budd said. "Once it gets public like that, neither side wants to look like the one that is turning down help."

It has gotten public, for certain, judging by the crowd that lined up Thursday to buy chartreuse T-shirts and buttons supporting the musicians.

Gail Blackwell of Minneapolis came with a friend who had ties with the musicians.

"It's a tough call either way," said Blackwell, of the dispute that may last for some time.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299