The ideal of "classical music" evokes images of grandeur and permanence - white marble columns, glistening stone, immemorial values.

But right now, at least, it seems as if the rock-solid world of classical music is undulating beneath our feet, as music directors and institutional managers resign with disconcerting frequency and possible successors jockey in sometimes unseemly fashion for their positions.In New York alone, leaders of five major Lincoln Center organizations have announced their resignations in recent months: Charles Wadsworth from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Beverly Sills and Sergiu Comissiona from the New York City Opera, Zubin Mehta from the New York Philharmonic and Bruce Crawford from the Metropolitan Opera.

And in case anyone thinks there might be something amiss at Lincoln Center or in New York City, the instability exists everywhere.

From Daniel Barenboim at the new Bastille Opera in Paris and rumored to be Sir Georg Solti's successor in Chicago, from Lorin Maazel out of Vienna (replaced by Claudio Abbado) and newly ensconced in Pittsburgh, from Giuseppe Sinopoli and Michael Tilson Thomas plunging into London's orchestral cauldron and Andre Previn out of London and to Los Angeles, today's musical world seems in constant flux.

Sooner or later, the 80-year-old Herbert von Karajan, who is probably still the most powerful man in classical music, will have to step down.

The maneuverings for his posts with the Berlin Philharmonic and the spring and summer Salzburg Festivals have already begun.

All questions of succession, involving famous artists who will wind up in front of a given orchestra's or opera house's public for many years, naturally provoke the most intense gossip.

Usually the gossip is based on shards of evidence, but sometimes it's merely speculative, or even engineered with an agenda - as in the case of one well-known American orchestra manager who, dissatisfied with his own music director, is earnestly floating the notion that his man is a leading candidate for Mehta's job at the New York Philharmonic.

But gossip is ultimately a pretty unsatisfying preoccupation, especially since the boards of directors who make the decisions tend to be a close-mouthed lot.

Beyond the artists themselves are the forces behind their selection - the significant structural changes that have taken place within the power relationships that make up the business of classical music.

One of these is a shift of power away from music directors to resident, year-round institutional managers - which makes Crawford's relatively sudden resignation as general manager of the Met especially troubling.

Another is the increasingly dominant role of electronic media in determining the fate of organizations ostensibly devoted to the traditional presentation of live performances.

Third is the rise of the international manager, reflecting the increasingly close-knit connections in classical music worldwide.

Jet travel does more than isolate a performer into the past, encouraging star performers to recycle the same, limited repertory in city after city.

It also fosters multiple appointments (Riccardo Muti at La Scala and the Philadelphia Orchestra; Mehta in New York and Tel Aviv). That, in turn, means that a city loses the months-long presence of a resident maestro who not only takes responsibility for his night-to-night interpretations, but also tends to the health of the orchestra and cultivates lasting bonds with its community.

And with baton-wavers bouncing about the planet like June bugs in the sun, someone else has stepped into the vacuum back home - the resident manager.

Powerful managers are nothing new. In the 1930s, Arthur Judson ran not only Columbia Artists Management, then as now this country's most powerful artist-management concern, but also managed both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

The power of today's orchestra and opera managers doesn't express itself in such an overtly monopolistic way.

The days seem past when swashbuckling impresarios and managers like Sol Hurok and Rudolf Bing enjoyed taking flamboyant risks and exercising Draconian artistic control.

Instead, today's managers are able to exert power both because the artistic directors are so often absent and because the managers have become increasingly sophisticated in controlling financial and administrative matters.

With the budgets of big classical-music organizations, opera companies in particular, soaring, managers simply have to be fiscally responsible.

At the Met, the annual budget for expenditures is $88 million this season, with the once inconceivable plateau of $100 million a year clearly not long off; the equally mystical barrier of $100 for a good seat in the orchestra is even closer at hand.

Met general managers have thus been emerging directly from the board, like Crawford and his predecessor, Anthony A. Bliss.

And since its size and complexity make the Met itself a corporate entity, Crawford had the further advantage of having run a large, modern corporation - a task to which he is returning.

In Europe, a manager is now usually some faceless figure in local cultural politics with good connections to high society and to the government agency that provides the subsidy that supports the company.

Such a figure, socially or politically adept and cost-conscious like an accountant, cannot be expected to also bring a burning artistic vision to his position.