Throughout the 70s and 80s the Berlin Philharmoic Orchestra competed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the title of "world's greatest orchestra." The Berliners, guided by Herbert von Karajan, excelled in a wide, eclectic repertoire; their strings played with a graceful lilt that suited the Classical style. The Chicagoans, under the baton of the single-minded George Solti, built a reputation on the slick, precise brass and percussion sound that brightened many a Romantic symphony. Chicago probably had the upper hand in technical prowess, but in the conducting department, the Berlin Orchestra, founded in 1883 and still run by the musicians themselves, benefited from a more genuine interpretative vision--a von Karajan legacy not yet forsaken. Incidentally, the CSO tried to lure the celebrated von Karajan (who died two years ago) before acquiring Solti back in the mid-60s, only to nix the invitation because of his alleged Nazi sympathies. In an ironic twist two decades later, the loser in the contest to succeed Solti now leads the Berliners. It's Claudio Abbado, the erstwhile CSO PRINCIPAL guest maestro, who'll be on the podium tonight showing the hometown crowd what might have been. Unfortunately--and perhaps deliberately--he's scheduled a CSO specialty, Mahler's Ninth, as the showcase for the German group, who last visited the city five years ago. It won't be easy to top the CSO's definitive interpretations. Friday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan; 435-6666.