The Portland Symphony Orchestra took the stage to thunderous cheers and applause Thursday evening as it made a triumphant return to the Eastern Promenade for the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration.

A crowd estimated at tens of thousands was entertained with patriotic marches, blockbuster film scores and what music director Eckart Preu called “classical party music.” The concert was Preu’s first as the PSO director.

Later, just as the PSO reached the climax of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” the fireworks began to erupt over Portland Harbor.

Many people were overjoyed the orchestra was back – after a one-year hiatus – with a new organizer and paid VIP and reserved sections.

“It was a bummer” when a lack of sponsors canceled the performance last year, said Jackie Nelson, 62, from Portland’s East Deering neighborhood.

“We’re really glad to see it back – it is really exciting,” Nelson said.

Nelson and her husband, Wayne St. Pierre, paid for $50 VIP tickets to sit close to the stage along with with their daughter and grandson. They’ve been coming for years and thought it was worth it to shell out for the tickets, St. Pierre said.

“I think it is a fantastic thing for the promenade, for Munjoy Hill and for the city of Portland,” he said.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra performs on the Eastern Prom on Thursday evening before the Fourth of July fireworks show. The PSO returned to the event after a one-year hiatus caused by funding issues. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The symphony performed as part of the Stars and Stripes Spectacular for eight years, but the performance was canceled last year because of a funding shortfall.

It was revived this year by Shamrock Signature, a programming and events company, in partnership with the city and the PSO. Organizers want the event, renamed Portland Pops, to be part of a larger event called SummerfestME in future years.

The orchestra performance was partially funded by a $100-a-ticket Pops with a Purpose Gala last week. Organizers also sold the $50 VIP tickets, as well as $25 reserved space tickets, for people willing to shell out to get closer to the stage.

Brian Corcoran, Shamrock Signature’s CEO, said the company sold out the the 500 VIP tickets and 1,000 reserved seats tickets set aside for the event.

When he started planning the event, Corcoran thought it would be a success if it broke even with ticket sales and private sponsors. Wex Inc. and Quirk Auto Group were lead sponsors for the performance.

“We consider this a success,” he said.

The crowd of thousands watches the fireworks display from the Eastern Prom in Portland on Thursday night. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On Thursday evening, 66 musicians played for about two hours, mixing patriotic anthems and marches with classical work and popular scores from “Star Wars,” “Superman,” and the “Avengers” films.

VIP guests drank Maine craft beer and supped on a buffet that included caprese sliders and mini lobster rolls.

Wendy Wickford, 55, was visiting Portland with her family from the Philadelphia area. They heard the Portland fireworks were the best in Maine and bought their VIP tickets two months ago, she said.

“We were ecstatic – we got our tickets in May,” Wickford said. “Then we got a message that they had sold out, so we were glad we did.”

Just up the hill from the VIP section, Sandra Simpson, 73, of Cape Elizabeth said she was devastated when the music didn’t happen last year.

“It was very sad,” she said.

He friend Lauren Segal, 64, said she had never been to the Portland fireworks before, but the orchestra made it “the perfect event of music and friends and fireworks.”

She appreciated the opportunity to reserve a seat near the stage for $25, Segal added.

“It definitely made it better and easier to access,” she said.

People without reserved seats started setting up on prime spots along the Eastern Prom hours before the symphony took the stage. By sundown, latecomers struggled to find places to sit on the park’s grassy slope.

Crowds spread out on lawn chairs and blankets across the sloping promenade. Most of the Munjoy Hill neighborhood was closed to vehicles. Onlookers enjoyed food from a string of food trucks parked along the curb or dug into coolers for snacks and drinks brought from home. Some slyly sipped beer or wine.

Kathy Trott, 36, from Portland’s West End, stood near a park monument watching the show. She was glad the symphony was back, but would have come anyway. Coming to the fireworks has been a family tradition since she was a kid, and she came to enjoy it with her 78-year-old father.

“I come every year,” Trott said. “I love it.”

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