BUFFALO -- Instead of Hector Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust," the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will open its season this weekend with the sound of silence.

The orchestra, often ranked among the nation's top 10 musically, has become the latest in a series of big-city symphonies forced by money shortages, to pack its instruments away, at least temporarily.

Its winter season, which was to have started today, was indefinitely postponed after the musicians refused to consider contract concessions that management for the orchestra, which is already $2 million in debt, said were needed to erase another $1.3 million budget gap projected for this year.

"My guess is that if several more weeks go by and there is no movement on the part of the musicians, I think we'll shut it down for the season," Andrew J. Rudnick, the orchestra's board president, said yesterday.

"We must have a balanced budget," said Executive Director Edwin Wolf. "We see no recourse other than to cut expenses in the music-making part of it."

The theme is one heard from coast to coast.

The New Orleans Symphony, as well as symphonies in Detroit, Denver and San Antonio have been silenced for months after musicians rebelled against drastic pay cuts. Not even the mighty Philadelphia Orchestra has been immune; a last-minute contract settlement this week averted a musicians' strike.

Catherine French, chief executive officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, said mismanagement, weak local economies and government cutbacks all have played a role.

"The arts, unfortunately, don't remain a high priority when budget deficits strike," French said in a telephone interview from Washington.

Despite persistently low salaries and financial struggles, Buffalo's orchestra has always attracted talented musicians and star conductors, from William Steinberg and Josef Krips to Michael Tilson Thomas and the current musical director, Maximiano Valdes.

When the orchestra played at Carnegie Hall in February 1986, a reviewer for the New York Times wrote, "Once in a very long time, the critic is privileged to attend a musical event tinged with greatness."