Locked out since Oct. 1 in a contract dispute with management, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra emerged from limbo Thursday to offer a triumphant, self-organized, sold-out concert at the same hour, and in the same venue, as their previously scheduled season opener. It was a momentous evening, combining music by Dvorak and Shostakovich with a brisk trade in pro-musician lawn signs.

Leading the orchestra was the astonishing 89-year-old Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, its music director from 1960 to 1979 and the state's foremost performing musician. Like everyone else on stage, the conductor donated his services, leaving no doubt where he stands as the ensemble he has led in 53 consecutive seasons battles to preserve its legacy and secure its future.

Such battles are nothing new for Skrowaczewski, who, during his tenure as music director, had his own contretemps with board and management. Thursday's performances, greeted with repeated standing ovations, had an urgency that can't be counterfeited.

Tony Ross, one of the orchestra's spokesmen in the labor dispute, was the soloist in a loving, superbly lyrical account of Dvorak's elegiac Cello Concerto, capturing every tremor of its drama, its songfulness, its grief.

Skrowaczewski, who first met Shostakovich in 1947 (the two are pictured together in the printed program), chose the Russian master's Fifth Symphony, long central to the conductor's repertoire, for the program's second half. Written in the midst of Stalin's Terror, the work speaks truth to power; its tragic Largo is music of bottomless depth.

On Thursday, in the symphony's ferocious final movement, Skrowaczewski appeared to struggle with exhaustion. But his beat never faltered, and the performance was riveting despite the somewhat indifferent acoustics of the Minneapolis Convention Center's Auditorium, where the orchestra was scheduled to play this season while Orchestra Hall undergoes renovation work.

Is the Minnesota Orchestra "the greatest orchestra in the world," as New Yorker critic Alex Ross playfully suggested two years ago? It's a silly question. "In what repertory," one wants to ask, "under what conductor, in what hall, on what day?" But is our band among the very best? Yes, without question. It has rigor, punch and soul -- qualities rare enough singly, let alone in combination -- and it listens.

Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.