All esteemed, wonderful conductors who pitched in to help from 2002 to 2004, but with all but one of them now older than 81 (Frühbeck de Burgos is the baby of the group at 77), not necessarily a group you can lean on too hard or for too long. Furthermore, Haitink — already the BSO's conductor emeritus — is coming off a four-year stint as principal conductor in Chicago, where he held down the fort until Riccardo Muti could take over as music director. At 82, would he be willing to take on another such mission?

And what about the audience? Sales in 2002-'03 and 2003-'04 dropped only slightly (two percent and .5 percent, respectively), but even though there was no music director, Levine had been appointed designate before Ozawa had left, so the two years without someone in charge at least held out hope that help was on the way. This time, after several years of will-he-or-won't-he drama concerning Levine's status, BSO subscribers are being tossed into another potentially drawn-out period of uncertainty.

Walking around the Hall before Friday's matinee performance, I didn't hear much chatter among patrons about Levine's decision. The staff members I spoke with said that Levine was in bad, bad shape in recent weeks. Everyone seemed sad, and some were concerned, but no one was surprised.

"I don't want to be remotely insensitive, but in a way there's also an element of relief," said Volpe. "Watching that — he got a little better, and then a setback, got a little better, and then a major setback — that was somewhat emotionally challenging. No one wants to see anybody suffer."

In his program note for what would be his last Symphony Hall performance as music director, an open rehearsal of Mahler's Ninth Symphony late last month, Levine noted how the piece was "in essence Abschiedswerke," a work of farewell. Indeed, it has been used for goodbyes in Boston before — Ozawa chose it for his final Symphony Hall performance as music director. It would be somewhat fitting for Levine to go out with a rehearsal instead of a gala. He always seemed most comfortable working with his orchestra, refining the music he loved.

Levine's job in Boston is over. For the BSO, the task now at hand is large, and looming.

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