An orchestra's 100th birthday is a unique event - testament to longevity and artistic well-being. It is a special day that highlights what has been grand and what remains, and (one hopes) will always remain, special in that institution's makeup.
The culmination of the Boston Symphony's year-long celebration of its first century of existence came in a gala evening last Sunday (although tonight is the actual birthday), for which the orchestra gathered an exceptional list of legends of our time to join with Seiji Ozawa, the BSO, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and make joyous music: Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leontyne Price, and Rudolf Serkin. It was a special celebration as well as a state-of-the-institution statement - and a resoundingly grand statement it was.
But the Symphony has been celebrating for over a year now, what with a nationwide centennial tour last spring and an ambitious series of commissions to commemorate the event. And there has been a tremendous amount of planning (and fund raising) to allow the company to go abroad again, first to Japan, then on to Europe, for a three-week period beginning next Monday.
But the loyal supporters of the orchestra needed something festive and unique to savor, and this gala gala was just the thing. With the startling lineup on hand, it was no surprise to know it was sold out, even at $1,000 top (which included a festive dinner-dance at Boston's Park Plaza Hotel).
Happily, the musicmaking was remarkable and went live to Europe (and the Boston area). In the United States it will be aired Wednesday (PBS, Nov. 4, check local listings for premiere and repeats). True, the opening ''Consecration of the House'' overture was not the finest Beethoven heard in those walls, but it did open the Boston Symphony's first program 100 years ago, and Beethoven's is the only name to grace the hall's elegant proscenium. Messrs. Stern and Perlman were on their best behavior in a Vivaldi two-violin concerto - a genuine duo rather than what is more more common these days: mindless competition between two soloists, often on unequal terms.
Rostropovich's Haydn may not be entirely authentic, but the playing was authentically Rostropovich, from the fiery fortes down to the gossamer pianissimos. Leontyne Price offered two signature arias - ''D'amor sull'ali rosee'' from Verdi's ''Il trovatore,'' and ''Zweite Brautnacht'' from Strauss' ''Die agyptische Helena'' - and an encore of ''Signore, ascolta,'' from Puccini's ''Turandot,'' all in the creamy, gorgeous voice that has long since been recognized as one of this nation's most splendid treasures.
But the truly festive part of the program was, even on paper, the closing work, Beethoven's unique Fantasy in C minor for piano, chorus, and orchestra, the Choral Fantasy. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which is led by John Oliver and is one of the finest choral ensembles of the day, was nurtured and given its current prominence by Ozawa. The strong soloists have all been regulars at BSO concerts: Benita Valente, Susan Davenny Wyner, Lili Chookasian, John Aler, Dennis Bailey, and John Cheek. And finally, there was Mr. Serkin. It is indeed a festival piece - now festive, now stirring, now achingly poetic - with the pianist setting the tone. Serkin suffused it with love and splendor, and the performance took off from there.
Lest one got away thinking that the orchestra itself did not get a showcase, Ozawa threw in the last movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, arguably the finest piece (on a stunningly rich list) the Boston Symphony has ever commissioned.
Happily, subscribers had a chance to revel in some more top-flight musicmaking on the days before this gala. Ozawa led the orchestra brilliantly through the finest Tchaikovsky ''Francesca da Rimini'' this critic has ever heard. Mr. Perlman rendered a nigh-faultless performance of Saint-Saens' delectable (and infrequently heard) ''Introduction and Rondo capriccioso.'' Unfortunately, that program had opened with an untidy, plump account of Mozart's ebullient, mercurial 28th Symphony, and Perlman and Ozawa introduced to the world the Robert Starer Violin Concerto, a surprisingly conventional, innocuous, and forgettable work, played by soloist and orchestra with conviction.
Tonight the Symphony offers a free outdoor public concert (a first for it) of Beethoven's Ninth, on a specially constructed band shell on the Boston Common. Ozawa will conduct two performances of Roger Sessions' ''Concerto for Orchestra'' (Friday and Saturday), which were commissioned for the centennial.
Then it's off to conquer the international music scene once again.