After a punishing contract dispute and a five-month lockout, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra returned to the stage last night for the first time since musicians and management reached a labor settlement. On the surface the concert was all about the music, but underneath, raw emotions remain.
There was an air of muted excitement as some 800 people gathered inside the Shepherd of the Valley Church in Apple Valley for the SPCO's return. Among them was Mike Phillips, who arrived with his wife and son.
"It's been a long time coming," he said, adding that, just as the SPCO is renewing itself, his family is renewing its subscription. "It's good to be here."
As members of the crowd chatted and moved into the sanctuary, there were few indications this was the first concert after months of acrimony and a lockout which silenced an ensemble considered one of the top chamber orchestras in the world.
But you could find some signs.
Mark Thoson and Juliet Branca wore black armbands bearing the number 34. That's the current size of the SPCO, but the number will be reduced to 28 under the contract agreed by the musicians.
"We made black armbands because it's a sad time to think about losing positions," said Thoson, who choked up as he talked about what was happening.
Orchestra management is offering musicians a retirement package to reduce the size of the orchestra, and Thoson said he worries that a large number of players will leave.
There were no speeches from the stage marking the resumption of the music, just a letter in the program from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman welcoming back audience members. Coleman is credited with brokering a deal when it looked like the rest of the season might be lost.
When the musicians took the stage, the lights went down and concertmaster Steven Copes walked on, the crowd rose to its feet. There was a similar warm greeting for conductor Thomas Zehetmair before the music began.
If the ensemble had lost any of its quality during the lockout it was hard to tell as the music began. At intermission Ed and Kitty Martin from Burnsville brimmed with enthusiasm.
"I think they are hot to go!" laughed Ed. "Hot to go!"
"Because what are we looking at?" asked Kitty. "We are looking at an absolutely beautiful core of musicians."
Nearby, interim SPCO President Dobson West, who led management negotiations, looked on with a delighted smile on his face.
"I think one of the most wonderful things about the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is the relationship between the audience and the musicians, and it's an intimate setting and it's wonderful music and to be able to just reconnect the audience to the musicians is our goal here and it's working beautifully here tonight," he said.
The second part of the program featuring Schoenberg and Mozart also proved a crowd-pleaser.
The standing ovation lasted for several minutes, and the musicians seemed pleased by the reception.
Concertmaster Steven Copes said it was great to be playing again, and he was amazed at how quickly the ensemble found its stride again during rehearsal. He admits however there is still work to do before all is well at the Orchestra.
"It has been very stressful for everyone, everyone in maybe a totally different way," said Copes. "But there is no use dwelling on it any more. It's just -- we have to make the organization work better and stronger so this doesn't happen again."