The Charleston Symphony Orchestra announced Tuesday that its longtime conductor, David Stahl, will be stepping down as music director to assume a new role as laureate conductor in a three-year process, beginning immediately.

He will retain his current post and remain involved in concert programming during the next three seasons, and likely will play a part in selecting the new music director, orchestra officials said at a Tuesday press conference.

As laureate conductor, Stahl will conduct "one or two" concerts a year and provide ongoing support.

The orchestra will assemble a search committee this season, then launch an official search next year, board President Ted Legasey said.

"We're hoping to find a great set of people from the community," Legasey said. A search for the top music job at a reputable symphony orchestra can take two years, and the organization wants to "build a sense of real participation" among local stakeholders, he said.

The announcement came after a difficult fiscal year during which the survival of the organization was in question. Currently, the orchestra is searching for a permanent executive director. Legasey said 40 people applied for the post, and eight are "semi-finalists," including Interim Executive Director Kathleen Wilson.

Stahl just completed his 25th season. When he auditioned in 1983, the orchestra was a small community ensemble with a few professional musicians at its core, said Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. "David drew out of that little orchestra music that I didn't think could be achieved by anybody," Dressler Moryl said after the press conference.

While few conductors reach a silver anniversary, long tenures are not so rare. Seiji Ozawa led the Boston Symphony for 29 years. Eugene Ormandy led the Philadelphia Orchestra for 44 years.

Mayor Joe Riley credited Stahl with galvanizing the arts community and serving as a valuable "ambassador" who drew talent to the city and enriched its musical landscape and economy.

"It's impossible to overstate David Stahl's importance to our community, or to what has happened so positively to the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in the last 25 years," Riley said.

Today, the 34 members of the all-professional ensemble are busy, he said. "They perform in our churches, and they perform at our weddings and celebrations, and they teach our children and teach our children's parents, and they teach at schools and colleges, and they enrich the life of our community so profoundly. David, with his charisma and with his great musical ability, attracted these extraordinary people ... and built the Charleston Symphony Orchestra into one of the great regional symphony orchestras in America."

Stahl noted his profound connection to Charleston. He met his wife Karen and raised a family here. And he has been a loud advocate for the arts, emphasizing its essential role in fostering economic development and enriching the cultural heritage of the community.

"What we've seen over the last quarter of a century, is how vitally important and crucial the arts are to the economic well-being of the Lowcountry," he said. As "ambassador," he will continue to promote the value of the arts, Stahl said.

Amos Lawrence, assistant concertmaster and 16-year veteran of the orchestra, said Stahl has been an honest and passionate leader who brings "a ton of energy to the job."

"He loves the music and has a real regard for the musicians," Lawrence said.

Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker considered Stahl's legacy.

"I feel I've learned so much from him." Bekker said. "David built this orchestra. We must never forget this was a part-time, very small ensemble, and he created a professional orchestra that created many jobs for musicians."

Legasey hailed Stahl's talent and character.

"It would be easy, given how long David's been here, to just kind of take his talents for granted; but that would be a huge mistake," Legasey said. "His magic as a conductor is real. His love of this orchestra and of this city is palpable. We can all feel it. And his enthusiasm is absolutely contagious. He's going to be hard to replace. So this is not going to be an easy job that we're facing."