TAMPA — First the Patel Conservatory dismissed its youth orchestra manager.
In the months to come, all four Patel conductors would resign, ultimately joining a new youth orchestra that the old manager formed.
Now it's clear that the students have followed, too.
The Patel youth orchestra started fall practices last week at its performing arts complex near downtown with about 50 members — a mere one-third of last year's enrollment.
Musicians ranging from ages 8 to 19 practiced for the chamber orchestra and the intermezzo orchestra.
Meanwhile, the rehearsal session bustled inside a hall at the University of South Florida. There, the new Tampa Metropolitan Youth Orchestra organized 200 musicians, ages 6 to 21, into four groups: a symphony orchestra, a philharmonic orchestra and two string ensembles.
Leaders of both groups take pains not to characterize the split as a nasty one or describe the two orchestras as rivals.
Still, the exodus from Patel has exposed rifts.
Sondra Shields was surprised by the lean crowd at the Patel practice when she took her daughters last week.
"I didn't know that it had gone to the depths that it had to create such a drastic move," she said.
• • •
Jessica Calandra said she didn't know her job managing Patel's youth orchestra was in jeopardy last June. Then she was told to clear out her desk.
"They walked me out of the building," Calandra said.
The conservatory houses the educational arm of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts where Wendy Leigh is vice president of education. Leigh said she let Calandra go the same day Patel eliminated the orchestra manager position.
Leigh said she encouraged Calandra to apply for a newly created music department chair. Instead, Calandra began forming the new youth orchestra as an arm of the FloriMezzo nonprofit organization she also founded.
The new organization would allow her to continue working with talented young musicians, a job she loves.
At the same time, tensions rose as the Patel orchestra carried out its 2010-2011 season.
Ken Yu, a senior at King High School, played cello at Patel for five years before switching to Tampa Metropolitan this season. He and others didn't like the fact that the group had begun rehearsing in the Straz Center lobby, rather than the TECO Theatre, he said.
Space was tight and the acoustics were subpar, he recalled.
"The conductor was obviously getting really angry, like, 'This is how we're being treated?' " Yu said.
As the Patel orchestra season wrapped up this spring, music director William Wiedrich announced his resignation and took the same position at Tampa Metropolitan.
At some point, Patel's three other conductors — Jason Jerald, Sandy Neel and Colleen Strom — followed, too. Calandra said she asked them to join the new organization because of the respect she has for their work and the way they jelled at Patel.
"They are the most talented and gifted conductors for this type of thing in the Tampa Bay area," she said.
All four have deep connections with students, parents and other instructors in the local classical music scene. Marketing was heavy, including word of mouth, e-mails and fliers.
"I don't think I had any friends who stayed with PCYO because we all talked about it before we auditioned," Yu said. "We pretty much agreed that we all wanted to switch."
This summer, Leigh hired Gregory Ruffer as Patel's music department chairman. He also will serve as the youth orchestra's artistic director. Stephen Brown is the new principal conductor.
Mauricio Rojas was a part of the Patel youth orchestra last year, playing violin for its top tier group of musicians with roughly 70 members. This year, he plays with a chamber orchestra with about 20 members, said his father, Alejandro Rojas.
"I expected the numbers to go down," said Alejandro Rojas. "Actually I would say that the numbers were even deeper, farther down to what I was expecting."
The family lives in South Tampa, and a commute to USF wouldn't fit into an extracurricular schedule of sports and music for Mauricio and his siblings. But Alejandro Rojas also believes that Patel deserves their loyalty.
"Even though the directors of the orchestra left, I think the institution should survive independent of the people that are there," he said.
Shields considered switching her two daughters to Tampa Metropolitan over the summer, but its Saturday performance schedule conflicted with the family's Sabbath observation as Seventh-day Adventists.
Patel's smaller size may benefit them, Shields said.
"They have to step up to the plate and they can't hide in the shadows now," she said.
• • •
Calandra said Tampa Metropolitan fulfills her desire to strike out on her own after losing a job she loved, but she doesn't want to hurt the Patel. Ruffer also said there shouldn't be a spirit of competition between the two organizations.
"It's really what's in the best interest of the kids," he said. "I don't see how having multiple opportunities is a bad thing."
Despite the dropoff in membership, the Patel has no plans to dissolve its youth orchestra, Leigh said. "We're committed to providing high-quality music instruction."
Michael Pastreich, president and chief executive of the Florida Orchestra, said youth orchestra splits are not uncommon and it is possible for both local orchestras to survive.
Patel, however, will have to regroup and set a new course, Pastreich said. For example, it could focus on strings or modern eras of music, he said. One organization might focus on high-level students while the other has a more general membership.
He noted that the Patel orchestra has already coexisted for years with the Pinellas Youth Symphony at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
"I think the demand for kids who want to join youth orchestras is virtually unlimited," Pastreich said. "And whatever limit there is, we are miles from reaching it."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.