David Zinman chose one of the toughest assignments in the symphonic repertoire for his first subscription concert as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The entire program Thursday night in the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was Gustav Mahler's giddy, brooding, enigmatic Symphony No. 7.

This was the orchestra's first performance of the music, and Zinman made it the performance of a lifetime. The 49-year-old conductor, a native of New York, may be better known in Europe (where he has served as music director of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic) than in the United States. But he is no stranger in Baltimore, having become the orchestra's principal guest conductor two years ago, and he has already achieved a remarkable rapport with the musicians. The playing was excellent in all sections of the orchestra, with especially commendable work by the horns and the wind instruments.

The Seventh is probably the least-performed of Mahler's symphonies, perhaps because it demands virtuoso playing in the orchestra and an extraordinary breadth and flexibility of style in the conductor. Audiences don't seem fond of it, but this seems to be largely based on its unfamiliarity. If it had more performances as good as this one, audiences would love it.

Five or six patrons left after the first movement, thereby depriving themselves of some of the strangest and most fascinating nocturnal landscapes in music. A few more left before the brilliant, pulse-quickening fifth and last movement -- when Mahler unleashes the brass and percussion in gigantic outbursts calculated to excite anyone who can get excited by music.

Zinman approaches the music on many levels -- most enjoyably, perhaps, as a witty, subtle, wide-ranging study in musical styles. They jostle, mingle and tumble over one another: serious and silly, rustic and urbane, quiet and bombastic. Echoes of folk songs drift through the music, and the rhythms of one Austrian dance melt into those of another. Zinman explores this sometimes chaotic richness with a clear vision and an encyclopedic grasp of all the styles Mahler is exploiting. His gestures are expressive but economical, and his control of sound and tempo is dazzling. Particularly impressive was his control of the tense silences that Mahler inserts into the heart of the music.

Next week, the BSO goes back into familiar territory with Beethoven's First and Ninth, but Zinman's flair for unconventional programming as well as his fine musicianship promise interesting times ahead in Baltimore.