For the first time in its 100-year history, the Minnesota Orchestra on Monday locked out musicians because of a contract dispute. At the same time, the first six weeks of the fall season, including the Oct. 18 season-opening concert, were canceled.

"This is a very sad day for this organization," said bassist William Schrickel at a midday rally for musicians outside Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

"We have great respect for our musicians' talents and today is a difficult day," said board chairman Jon Campbell. "Our organization, however, cannot keep performing on borrowed time."

Management locked out musicians after their five-year contract expired at midnight. The union on Saturday voted unanimously to reject an offer that would cut $5 million in musician costs, including salary cuts that would lower the average annual salary to $89,000 from $135,000.

Then, on Sunday, management swiftly said no to a proposal by musicians to submit the increasingly bitter dispute to independent arbitration, or to "talk and play" while seeking agreement on a new contract.

Richard Davis, who chairs the board's negotiating team, said that concerts through Nov. 25 were canceled so that patrons and guest artists could make adjustments in their schedule. The orchestra said nine concerts are affected by the decision and that ticket holders could exchange seats for a future concert, request a refund or forfeit their tickets and consider it a tax-deductible contribution. About 3,900 tickets had been sold for three concerts on opening weekend.

Davis refused to speculate about the remainder of the season, or whether the orchestra might hire temporary replacement musicians after Nov. 25.

"We reserve the right to have any option," he said. "But our intention right now is to get our current players back on stage."

Big deficit last year

The orchestra, which reported a $2.9 million deficit in fiscal 2011, has said throughout negotiations, which started in April, that it needs to cut expenses. Before last year, budgets had been balanced only through large withdrawals from investments, a situation Davis and orchestra executives have called unsustainable. Musicians have called repeatedly for an independent financial analysis.

"We're looking at $139 million in assets, a $110 million fundraising campaign and a $50 million lobby project juxtaposed against pay cuts for musicians," said clarinetist Tim Zavadil at Monday's rally. "We still have not seen a copy of next year's budget, which has been approved by the board."

Management said it has provided musicians with 1,200 pages of financial information.

Davis and several musicians said Monday they were willing to meet again, but no talks are scheduled. Davis said management is waiting for a financial counter-proposal to the offer that was put on the table on April 12.

"I'm well aware they dislike all of it," Davis said. "But I'd like to know if they dislike any of it more than others, because we're not going to come out of this without change."

Zavadil on Monday mentioned the offers on arbitration and continuing to play and talk. He would not say that the union was ready to make a specific financial proposal.

Musicians' rally

The rally drew about 60 to 70 of the 81 orchestra musicians. They held signs and marched around Orchestra Hall, whose $52 million renovation has become a lightning rod for the union and its supporters.

The board, which scaled back a $90 million renovation plan to $40 million, has said fund-raising has been explicit that the money would be used for the project. The response from donors was significant enough that $52 million was raised.

Virginia Lindow of Edina questioned the expenditure on the new hall in a tough economy. Lindow, who described herself as a small donor but a frequent concertgoer, said of the orchestra board, "They are alienating their audience."

Mike Gast, principal horn, summed up the strong feelings musicians have about playing for the Minnesota Orchestra. Gast used to play with the San Antonio Symphony, where his wife still plays.

"I've chosen to live 23 years apart from my wife to play with this orchestra," he said.

Principal cello Tony Ross, a 25-year orchestra veteran, is one of several musicians who are now looking for work, either in another orchestra or academia.

Ross said he has friends in the Atlanta Symphony, where musicians recently accepted $2.4 million in annual cuts to resolve a lockout. "They feel like their hearts were cut out," Ross said. "I couldn't imagine worse morale."

Staff writer Kristin Tillotson contributed to this report. Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299