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The year in music: looking ahead to the best Boston has to offer

If there has to be an opening gun for the Boston musical season, the Boston Symphony Orchestra Gala Concert is probably it. Every year, the management dresses up some tables, cooks some food, and raises the top ticket price to $100. They also program some music. As a general rule, the emphasis seems to be on the Gala, not on the concert.

This year was an exception; but only because Itzhak Perlman lent dignity and beauty to what otherwise would have been a turgid affair.

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After all these years and performances, you'd think that Perlman would have long ago extracted all one could get out of a staple work like Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor. But he brings to the piece a freshness and inspiration that make you feel as though you were hearing it for the first time.

Perlman played for continuity. Everything he did reflected on the flowing nature of the piece. Phrases were connected in a way I can't ever remember hearing. The relation of each cell to the whole organism was constantly before you. I found myself thinking of an actor who had performed a role until he grasped the entire dramatic development.

Perlman was the consummate actor, then. He brought us the character at the center of this piece. The romantic figure wrapped in contemplation, or soaring in song. The whole singing line.

He did all this against a wan musical backdrop provided by Seiji Ozawa and the BSO, which played better (although not to a better purpose) elsewhere in the program.

The concert had begun on a sweet note . . . followed by another sweet note . . . and another . . . and another.

And so the first piece went. The performance of Berlioz's seldom heard ''Waverly Overture'' (Berlioz's immature Opus 1 seemed a strange choice to open a season) was largely shapeless and carelessly phrased. The Suite from Bizet's ''Carmen,'' later in the program, was more adroit, full of fireworks; and it gave an opportunity to reflect on what Ozawa has done in 10 years to build up the BSO sound in brass, strings, percussion.

The BSO still stands as one of the world's premiere ensembles. It probably shows more sheer versatility than any American, and most European, orchestras. In the right hands, it delivers things you never knew were possible; and even in the wrong hands it sounds impressive.

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Perlman and Ozawa provided a glimpse of how it sounds in nobody's hands, as they walked off the stage in mock pique, during the encore. This left the orchestra to play the second half of Pagannini's devilishly difficult ''Perpetual Motion'' on automatic pilot . . . and it left the audience to recall how frequently the orchestra seems to play without leadership, even when the podium is occupied.

Nothing that happened in Symphony Hall Wednesday night gave any indication that the BSO will offer us more or less than the showcase for visiting talent - sometimes bringing out the incredible depth and brilliance of this superb orchestra - that it has always provided.

Which brings us to the coming season. And the fact that the BSO represents a bad investment for most music lovers this season.

The combination of astronomical prices, poor program planning, and mixed visiting talents makes the orchestra a poor second to the Boston University Celebrity Series, even for those people who have a little extra money to spend. The social draw and musical mystique of the BSO will, of course, continue to prevail over all comers. But Boston has so much more to offer this season, from the free to the pricey.

On the costly side, you can get a seven-concert series from the BU Celebrity Series for $80.50 to $101.50, as opposed to a six concert series from the BSO for $68.00 to $171.00.

Aside from the dollars, the choices are obvious.

For your BU bucks, you can select from: the Warsaw Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Baltimore Symphony, San Francisco Symphony with Edo De Wart; Rudolph Serkin, Annie Fischer, Vladimir Ashkenazy; Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern; the Vienna Choir Boys; the Juilliard String Quartet, the Brandenburg Ensemble; the Israel Chamber Orchestra; the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and Mummenschanz . . . and many other offerings.

Compared with the BSO's very mixed bag of programs and performers, there is simply no contest.

But there are far better bargains in Boston.

Frankly, the smart musical money this year should probably stay in loose change (and bills).

I'm saying that the best way to spend your money in this town is concert by concert. Series offer discounts, but they also dam up your cultural cash flow. There's more to be had around Boston for the smart musical shopper than in most cities in the world.

If you shop around, you can pick up the whole range of chamber and symphonic offerings the city has to offer from really outstanding performers, conductors like Gunther Schuller (with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra); soprano Sarah Reese (also with the Pro Arte); pianist Christopher O'Riley (Charles River Concerts); violinist Isidore Cohen (with the Beaux Arts Trio at Harvard).

Then, there are a number of choral/orchestral events, the likes of which you seldom get in most cities:

* A repeat of last year's wildly successful Beethoven's ''Ninth'' at Symphony Hall, this Friday night, by the Boston Philharmonic.

* ''King Arthur,'' the Henry Purcell Opera done by Boston Camerata on Oct. 29 and 30.

* A concert-opera performance of Janacek's seldom-heard opera ''Jenufa,'' done by Boston Concert Opera Jan. 20 and 22.

* A rare performance of Handel's oratorio, ''Israel in Egypt,'' done on Feb. 22 by the Cantata Singers and Ensemble under David Hoose.

* Bach's ''St. Matthew Passion,'' performed again by the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and Back Bay Chorale - with the added virtue of counter-tenor Jeffrey Gall, but the unfortunate lack of Jane Struss, who added a glowing element to last year's version.

Finally, the Boston premiere of Ralph Shapey's ''Three for Six,'' by the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble on April 8, will introduce the city to that fiercely individualistic composer.

This is just to pick a handful of moderately priced, phenomenally important events throughout the season. They are inexpensive enough to leave money for the outstanding offerings of the BSO (Kurt Masur on Jan. 13; Sir Colin Davis performing Tippet's ''The Mask of Time,'' with full orchestral and choral forces on April 6, for instance) and the BU Celebrity Series.

Together with the free, or nearly free, offerings of the Boston University Orchestra, the New England Conservatory, and other musical organizatons around town, these make for an incredible opportunity for moderately priced musical education.

One that you can enjoy splendidly, well.

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