WILL 1981-82 go down in history as the year the orchestras began to die? For a while during the season, which was wholly or partially canceled for some orchestras, it looked that way. But the American Symphony Orchestra League will open its annual meeting this week at the Shoreham with all of its orchestra members still alive, though some are in deep financial distress.

Mere survival is not the basic concern of the American Symphony Orchestra League, which was founded 40 years ago to establish and upgrade standards of professionalism in orchestra management and is beginning to become interested in artistic policy. But questions of survival have been a leitmotif during the past year and will be a major theme of this week's discussions. Attitudes at ASOL are cautiously optimistic. "Orchestras die," says Lisa Gonzalez, director of research, "but the big ones haven't. We haven't lost any orchestras in the top four budget categories. Some have suspended operations for a while, but none have gone out of business."

Still, orchestras have looked like an endangered species in the last year. The season began as a nonseason in Baltimore, where the Symphony Orchestra was on strike for several months, and nearly ended as a nonseason in Kansas City, where the Philharmonic announced a suspension of the remainder of its season on Feb. 20. Kansas City was bailed out by a last-minute grant of $800,000, and Baltimore (where the orchestra will open a new concert hall in September) finally ended its strike. The season did disintegrate in Miami, where the Florida Philharmonic has been on strike for months.

Many other orchestras have been forced to suspend part of their activities--usually the parts that bring in little or no income. The Buffalo Philharmonic has canceled a dance series and laid off a large part of its staff. The summer season, a major part of the orchestra's activity, has been suspended in San Diego, where the orchestra no longer can afford a general manager. The Detroit Symphony, which won acclaim on a European tour under Antal Dorati, has been without a music director since his resignation two years ago and has canceled all tours--not only to Europe but even its regular visits to Carnegie Hall. Only recently, after the post was long vacant, the orchestra hired a new managing director: Oleg Lobanoff, formerly of the National Symphony. He faces an uphill struggle in a city suffering economic crisis.

The death of the symphony (like that of live theater) is periodically predicted by observers who consider orchestras expensive, archaic, elitist relics of a bygone social system, irrelevant to today's needs. Living composers complain that most music played by American symphony orchestras was written by dead foreigners. If no new music is being produced for them, the argument goes, the end is inevitable; at best, they can become only a sort of musical museum for the performance of old works of art.

Actually, new orchestral compositions are being written constantly; the problem is that most of them are not being performed. And the primary reason is the expense. It costs at least $1,500 an hour to rehearse a first-class orchestra, and new music usually requires a lot more rehearsal than Mozart or Beethoven. Add the fact that Beethoven and Mozart do not collect royalties, and consider that most audiences would rather hear their music than new material, and the odds against contemporary music become overwhelming.

In the last two years, the number of orchestras in America has held steady at 1,572, but the number of concerts given dropped from 22,229 in 1980 to 19,327 in 1981. This is a sharp reversal of the trend over the last 40 years, which has been one of spectacular growth. The league began with 40 orchestras as members--not including any of the major orchestras that were in existence at that time. Its membership is now 771, including all of the important orchestras in the United States and Canada--in fact, all those that have annual budgets of $75,000 or more.

This week's ASOL meeting is the first held in Washington in 10 years and will include concerts, sightseeing excursions and a picnic on the grounds of Wolf Trap, where the League has its national headquarters. The discussion sessions at the Shoreham will cover techniques for hustling grants from corporations and foundations; community service programs; responsibility for artistic decisions; the problems of new music--selecting and performing it and getting people to listen.

There is no substantial evidence that audiences have lost interest. Symphony orchestras are everywhere in the United States--at least one in every congressional district. Cities that have them consider them a kind of status symbol, and their popularity with audiences is alive and growing. Last year, 22.8 million tickets were sold for symphony orchestras--an all-time record.

The income of American symphony orchestras in 1980-81 was a healthy $288.9 million. It had to be stretched to cover $289.3 million in expenses, and it didn't quite reach, but the gap has been wider in previous years. Orchestras are learning to tighten their belts. One problem is that this means fewer free concerts were given--and free concerts tend to build paying audiences for the future.

When America goes to the symphony, the price of the heavily subsidized ticket covers only a bit more than half the cost of the seat. One question is how much higher ticket prices can go before they produce diminishing returns. If that point has not already been reached, it is probably near. Another question is how much more symphony orchestras can expect to get from the private sector. The potential is enormous--current tax laws encourage corporations to contribute up to 10 percent of their income to the arts and other nonprofit activities--but the actual contributions have been only one percent.

At the National Endowment for the Arts, the music division was holding policy meetings last week while Congress was debating the NEA appropriation for the next budget. The feeling was less optimistic than at ASOL; if the budget cuts now under discussion go through, suggested Ernest Fleischmann, co-chairman of the music policy panel, 1982-83 may be the year the orchestras begin to die. The problem, he said, is that private, corporate and government contributions are "drying up while the public is coming in greater numbers."

In recent years, said Fred Zenone, cellist for the National Symphony Orchestra and co-chair of the NEA's orchestra panel, "American orchestras have been winning international recognition as being among the world's greatest. The quality has been going up, and one question is whether that growth can continue. The current government attitude could mean very difficult times."

Private and government contributions to American orchestras seem very small in comparison to those in Europe, Fleischmann said. "Our orchestras are at the top in earned income. The Berlin Philharmonic earns only 12 percent of its income in ticket sales and other services. The Los Angeles Philharmonic earns 82 percent of its income, and even the American orchestras that are in trouble earn a much higher percentage of their budgets than most foreign orchestras."

In spite of some scary episodes and an uncertain future, American symphony orchestras as a group seem to have established a firm constituency and realistic management techniques. Orchestras are very expensive, as any enterprise that employs 100 skilled specialists has to be, but they have established themselves as a significant part of American life. The real question raised by last season's incidents in Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City and San Diego is not whether orchestras are dying but who can be expected to pay their costs of living.