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The Minnesota Orchestra's first live, indoor audience in 15 months arrived in shifts, in masks, in good spirits.

They numbered just 400 — spread out among 2,000 seats — but when the musicians stepped onstage last weekend, they filled Orchestra Hall with applause.

Looking out at the cheering, hollering crowd, principal bass Kristen Bruya gave a little wave, as if encountering an old friend.

The first of five standing ovations that night, it marked a major moment for the Minnesota Orchestra and the broader performing arts world as they cautiously return to stages, to audiences, to normalcy.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra isn't inviting audiences back to the Ordway until September. But in recent weeks, hundreds of its fans have filled outdoor venues across the Twin Cities.

"We've been looking forward to this moment for the last 15 months," managing director Jon Limbacher told a big, buoyant crowd at the Como Lakeside Pavilion in St. Paul two weeks ago.

At Orchestra Hall, things felt different, still, onstage and off. Many attendees of the June 11 concert, led by music director Osmo Vänskä, had tuned in for the musicians' live broadcasts from this stage during the pandemic. But they'd been aching to be back with them in their hall — if not in their typical seats.

"As soon as I knew it was going to happen, we bought tickets," said Laura Kadwell, of Minneapolis, who arrived an hour early with her husband, Robert, and her friend, Lynn Zentner. The trio, who are "big Osmo fans," have been attending concerts for more than two decades.

They were there in 2014 for the first concert after a brutal, 15-month lockout. The place was packed.

"This crowd will be as jubilant," Kadwell predicted, "but it won't be as big."

During the pandemic's early days, "I just thought about those musicians and how they must have missed each other," she said. "You don't play a symphony by yourself. It's a real symbol of how we need each other, it seems to me."

Masks, and no cocktails

A half-hour before the concert, the lobby was buzzing but far from full. That was the goal: The orchestra had assigned arrival doors, staggered entrance times and set up touchless ticket scanners.

"Come on in!" usher Barbara Holmes greeted a group in the balcony. "We're so glad you're here!"

During a typical season, Holmes volunteers at Orchestra Hall several times a month, or "as often as I'm needed." Without audiences, these volunteers contributed in new ways, sewing masks, stocking food shelves and writing letters to folks in senior living facilities.

But Holmes missed the classical music she fell in love with via this part-time gig. "I tried to stream all the concerts on my computer or the TV as often as I could ... but it wasn't the same."

Downstairs, Michelle McCreery and Mark Duff sported silver silk masks they had bought for another occasion — their son's recent wedding. They were happy to be back in Orchestra Hall, where after 25 to 30 years of attending concerts, they often encountered friends.

But they were disappointed, too: No food, no cocktails. Masks required. "Minneapolis lifted the mask mandate, but here we are wearing them," Duff said.

"It's not the same," McCreery said. "The last time we were here, I would have come in that door, I would have ordered a drink."

"My hope," Duff said, "is that it opens up more to normal."

The orchestra set protocols — and sold tickets promising them — before state rules relaxed. After two more in-person concerts next weekend that will conclude its abbreviated 2020-21 season, the orchestra is looking at easing restrictions for shows in July and August. Already, it's announced an increase in capacity to 50%. This week, it will post a decision on masks, a spokesperson said.

The organization had tested its safety measures by inviting small groups of donors, board members and staff to weekday dress rehearsals.

"But they don't applaud, because we're timing it for broadcast," said Roma Duncan, who plays flute and piccolo. "So they're there and they're sending all kinds of energy, but they're very quiet and well-behaved."

Having an audience creates a "kind of connection in the room that I think is actually tangible."

Onstage, the orchestra isn't back to its biggest, Mahler-symphony self, Duncan noted. But players are finally sitting closer together, she said.

"When we were six feet apart and Osmo felt about 30 yards downstream, it was quite difficult," she said, requiring lots of internal calculation. "It messes with your intuition." Having audiences in the room, too, "feels more natural, more comfortable and more intuitive once again."

Audience out of practice

Last weekend's welcome-back concert was also livestreamed and broadcast on TPT MN, so the audience got a peek at that process.

Just before the start, a spotlight shone on Sarah Hicks, principal conductor of the orchestra's pops programming and, for the past few months, host of "This Is Minnesota Orchestra." She stepped to her right, touched a tiny earpiece, then stepped right again. Then she readied her mic.

Usually the camera finds Hicks standing among empty seats. But this time, it revealed the hundreds of audience members dotting the hall. And right behind her: a masked Michelle Miller Burns, the orchestra's CEO and president.

"I can't adequately explain how amazing it is seeing the excited faces of our first in-person audience since March of 2020," Hicks said. "We've missed your presence and your energy and we're so grateful to have to join us again."

The concert began, notably, with a symphony by Joseph Bologne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges and, for better or worse, "The Black Mozart."

After George Floyd's killing and amid the upheaval of the pandemic, classical ensembles across the country have been performing more works by composers of color. Each of the Minnesota Orchestra's outdoor chamber concerts on Peavey Plaza last year featured at least one piece by a Black composer.

The symphonies by Bologne and Haydn chosen for Friday's performance — which was shorter, to avoid an intermission — were bright, light and celebratory. Between pieces, as the audience watched, a swift crew remade the stage, popping the brass bar off the podium and wheeling out a Steinway for Chopin's Second Piano Concerto. Musicians scurried back into place.

"You still have two minutes," someone shouted.

The audience, though, seemed out of practice. During the concerto, featuring pianist Orion Weiss, a man dropped his program, a woman her sunglasses. From the balcony, a cellphone rang — and rang and rang.

But they sure cheered. Leaving the hall, friends Susan Richardson and Cheryl DuBois chatted about how much they'd missed this hall, this orchestra.

They dressed for the occasion: Richardson in a sleek black dress and DuBois in a frock patterned with pink roses — with bright pink eye shadow to match. They've always dressed up for the symphony, Richardson said. "It's ingrained in our generation." DuBois also thought of the woman who wore her wedding dress to get vaccinated.

"This is a huge deal for me," DuBois said. "They could have played 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' and I would have come." But as piano players, they appreciated the concerto.

The music was familiar, Richardson said, adding to the sense of coming home.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • • @ByJenna