ST. PETERSBURG — Stefan Sanderling is making an early exit from the Florida Orchestra. The orchestra announced late Sunday that Sanderling is stepping down as music director two years sooner than he said he was a year ago, when the conductor announced he would not renew his contract after it expired at the end of the 2013-14 season. "This has been in the works about two months," orchestra president Michael Pastreich said. In Pastreich's account, the subject first came up when he and orchestra board chair Tom Farquhar met with Sanderling in the conductor's dressing room at Ruth Eckerd Hall in late April after a Sunday night concert, and Sanderling asked to be released from his current contract. "I wasn't surprised," Pastreich said. "I think Stefan's career is heading in a different direction." Orchestra musicians, who learned about the music director's premature departure over the weekend, were surprised. "We're shocked to hear this, especially since it must have been in the works for some time," spokesman Richard Sparrow, a French horn player, said. "We wish Sanderling the best in all his future endeavors." Sanderling, music director since the 2003-04 season, had been scheduled to conduct 10 of the 14 masterworks programs in the upcoming season, with a similar obligation for 2013-14. Now he will conduct only one program in each of the next two seasons, with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) and Haydn's Farewell Symphony on the agenda for March 15-17. To accommodate his sudden departure, the orchestra has virtually rewritten the 2012-13 season, which will feature a dozen guest conductors, with seven of them signed up in a very short time. Many of these now are likely to be considered as prospective candidates for music director. Sanderling, 48, who has been designated conductor emeritus and artistic adviser of the orchestra, is spending the summer in Europe. He did not reply to an email requesting comment. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times last fall, he made it plain that he had become disenchanted with the orchestra's board and management, though he didn't specify his grievances beyond unhappiness with the musicians' perennially low rate of pay. As a kind of protest, perhaps, he had stopped making his popular pre-concert talks. This past year has been a hard one personally for Sanderling. In September, he was at the bedside of his father, the legendary German conductor Kurt Sanderling, when he died in Berlin one day short of his 99th birthday. Sanderling continues to be principal conductor of the Toledo Symphony, for whom he will lead at least eight programs in the 2012-13 season. He also will conduct a Toledo Opera production of Mozart's Don Giovanni in February. According to industry website Musical America, about three months ago he rejoined the roster of Columbia Artists Management, a leading talent agency for conductors that had previously represented him, a move that suggested he was positioning himself for more guest engagements once his commitments in Florida were dispatched. One of Sanderling's major successes was his idea to initiate a cultural exchange between the Florida Orchestra and musical institutions in Cuba. The relationship got under way this past season, and he was tentatively scheduled to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba in Havana next winter. That's not likely to happen now, according to Pastreich, who said the orchestra will develop another project to represent itself in Cuba this season. The music director's compensation from the Florida Orchestra was not disclosed on a recent tax return. It is estimated that Sanderling, who owns a house in St. Petersburg, was paid between $180,000 to $200,000 a year. Pastreich declined to provide terms of his separation from the orchestra. In some ways, Sanderling's leaving is a plus. It didn't seem to be in his or the orchestra's interest to have a lame-duck music director for two seasons, though the classical music business is used to such long goodbyes because of its practice of booking artists years in advance. "This will accelerate our time frame and allow us to see more candidates next season," said Jane Peppard, the music director search committee chair and a former board chair of the orchestra. (Peppard is a former executive with the Tampa Bay Times). Pastreich said the hope now is that the orchestra may be able to appoint a new music director by the end of the 2013-14 season. In recent months, the orchestra has appointed two staff conductors: Jeff Tyzik as principal pops conductor; and Stuart Malina as principal guest conductor. They are expected to take up some of the slack in the wake of Sanderling stepping down. Malina, also the coffee concert series conductor, will take the former music director's place on the podium for the season-opening masterworks program on Oct. 12-14, with a program anchored by Schumann's Rhenish Symphony. The orchestra hired a consultant, Gregg Gleasner, former director of artistic planning for the San Francisco Symphony, to line up guest conductors. "He used his leverage in the industry to get as many interesting candidates as possible," Pastreich said. "They trend younger and are all extremely exciting." None of the guest conductors is especially well known, except for Gerard Schwarz, former longtime music director of the Seattle Symphony. Andrew Grams was interim resident conductor with the Florida Orchestra in 2007-08. How will playing for a string of guest conductors impact the musicians? "I don't see a negative impact," Sparrow said. "Everybody on that stage is professional and it's a collaboration with whoever is on the podium." Who will represent the music director in auditions to fill vacant seats in the orchestra? Will there even be auditions? "Good question," Sparrow said. "We haven't really had time to think through this." As part of the reshuffling of conductors and repertoire to cover Sanderling's departure, the programming changes are fairly extensive. Several rarely heard works that he had planned to conduct, such as Karl Amadeus Hartmann's Symphony No. 2, Samuel Adler's Drifting on Wind and Currents and Varese's Deserts, are no longer on the schedule. Of course, the orchestra's brochures and other printed material to promote ticket sales are now out of date. John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.