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The symphony's retirement offer, while apparently proposed with good intentions, didn't sit well with some players. 

Reward or Punishment?

Questions still swirl about the intentions behind the Richmond Symphony's single largest gift in history. But answers are in short supply, primarily because one person hasn't come forward to give them: the donor.

In January 2000, an anonymous donor close to the Richmond Symphony pledged up to $1.5 million, the largest single donation in the symphony's history. According to symphony management, the money was earmarked to fund the retirement packages of musicians who had served the symphony for at least 25 years (or whose age plus their term of service to the symphony equaled 70 years) so that they could now afford to retire.

Of the 32 players eligible to take advantage of this voluntary retirement, 24 have chosen to leave and receive a lump sum that in some cases equals three years' salary, says Michele Walter, the symphony's executive director.

Before the donation, the symphony's musicians had an uncertain retirement. The symphony's management had tried to create an adequate retirement plan. But, as Walter says, "The symphony was not in a financial position to provide a meaningful pension."

From the founding of the symphony in 1957 until 1985, musicians had no retirement benefits available to them from the symphony. Walter says that from 1985 until 2001, retirement benefits ranged between 2 percent and 4 percent of a full-time musician's salary to be invested in a private retirement account. With those salaries averaging $27,000, that would be about $1,000 a year.

The anonymous donor's offer finally made retirement a realistic option for many of the musicians.

Many inside and outside the symphony have questioned the intentions and terms of this limited, one-time gift. Was it meant to push out older musicians? These critics note that the donation appeared right around the time the symphony brought on a new artistic director, Mark Russell Smith.

But symphony management maintains that the offer was not an effort to weed out older, less-capable musicians, but is instead a long-overdue opportunity to reward the dedication of the symphony's seasoned core.

"I am unquestionably in favor of rewarding the musicians who have served the symphony so faithfully," says Smith, the artistic director. "They deserve it."

There is, however, lingering resentment among some symphony players.

"Many of the players were offended" by the offer, says Linda Edwards, a bassoonist with the symphony since 1966, its union president and its former full-time personnel manager.

"The biggest problem was how the symphony handled the news, which makes everyone question the motive," Edwards adds. She has not yet elected to receive the package.

That theme is often repeated by symphony players — including retiring principal clarinetist David Niethamer, 52, who has elected to receive the payout according to its age-plus-years-of-service clause.

"I think the idea, although it was a good one, hasn't been carried out in a way that serves the short-term good of the symphony," Niethamer says. "There was a fear that some players were being earmarked as older or weaker players. … And the symphony has done little to change our minds."

Since they are not privy to the donor's intentions, many of the players say they are left feeling unwanted rather than appreciated.

According to Edwards, as of press time, although there are still eight players eligible to receive the buyout, there is only enough money left in the "pool" to support one more full-time musician and up to two part-timers.

Exacerbating the problem is the donor's desire to remain anonymous. As a result, the players and symphony management have found it difficult to ascertain the intention of the donation. His or her intentions may never be publicly confirmed.

"It was a stone wall that we hit," says Laura Roelofs, 43, a former assistant concertmaster who chose to leave the symphony after 12 seasons (she was ineligible for the offer). "No one, neither a lawyer nor a third party, could give us any information to communicate the donor's intentions."

Sources close to the symphony — who would speak only on condition of anonymity — worry that the unrest within the symphony and players' public comments may not only upset its generous and anonymous benefactor, but may also hurt the symphony's financial security. Some say last year's budget shortfall of $58,000, the symphony's first loss in eight seasons, could be one result of the unrest the donation has brought.

As relations are mended, auditions continue and positions are filled over the next several months, musicians and maestro are moving on and looking to the symphony's future. "The quality of players who have come to audition is very high — and speaks to the reputation that our retiring musicians have built," says Smith.

Bassoonist Edwards notes that she and others among the core of the symphony who had become disengaged since the retirement announcement are once again involved in long-term planning.

"The organization is still going to be here in 10 years," Edwards says. "We want the symphony to
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