The solid and sensible Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which puts its decidedly working-man's city on the cultural map, has an aristocrat at its head. Yuri Temirkanov, the eminent and respected Russian conductor, gave his inaugural concert as the BSO's music director last night. If his tenure builds on the strengths of this performance, the Temirkanov years could be legendary.

Baltimore is a lucky city. Fifteen years ago, when the Cold War was still in progress, the idea that one of the Soviet Union's foremost and distinguished artists would take the head artistic job at the BSO was inconceivable. Temirkanov was the chief of Leningrad's Kirov Opera, and within a few years, would take the helm of the country's most respected orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. He was a blue-blood musician, if not in the traditional sense, in the artistic sense, a man of wide culture, immense influence and a reputation for artistic and personal integrity. He could afford to take risks that would have sunk a lesser figure.

Then the Cold War ended, and with it the subsidies that made the Soviet musical scene flourish. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which he still leads, maintains its quality but is threatened by dwindling audiences and dwindling resources. To keep it afloat, Temirkanov must tour the orchestra, and when he does, foreign audiences want him to bring Russian repertoire--Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev.

But Temirkanov doesn't want to be pigeonholed. One might have expected that the world's very best orchestras would offer one of the finest living conductors the chance to conduct Elgar and Mahler; yet Baltimore secured him, and now a very good orchestra has a very great conductor. Early signs suggest that both will flourish.

Temirkanov chose Mahler's Symphony No. 2 for his first official concert as music director. Like Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, which also does service for large, ceremonial occasions, Mahler's Second is best heard infrequently; even for listeners who love it beyond reason, it takes discipline to keep its brutality raw and its sentimentality delicate and unself-conscious. Although it lasts at least an hour and a half, it is perhaps Mahler's most succinct statement: Everything that he does before and after this symphony is here in germ, the funeral marches, the bucolic alpine sounds, the despair of death and the frisson of hope that perhaps this world is not wrought from cold, insensible iron.

The new music director conducts Mahler with little wasted motion. In this often violent and saturnine work, Temirkanov called for only those cataclysms necessary to make the composer's point. He is a purist on the podium, attending diligently if not slavishly to the score, taking the spare theatrical liberty that proves he is confident of the audience's attention. He will extend a pause to the breaking point or allow the sound of offstage horns to die into protracted silences, but these exceptional moments only underscore his judicious, masonry approach.

The excitement of the performance was the excitement of comprehension. One heard Mahler's effort to build a new psychology for the orchestra while remaining somewhat distant from the music's bellicose and sloppy extremes. It made Mahler unfold the way Beethoven unfolds, though at a much more geological pace.

This runs counter to misguided expectations about how Russian-trained conductors conduct, and how Mahler is supposed to be played. Temirkanov's interpretation was not a cinematically sweeping approach, nor an overly personal one. But it invited serious listening, appreciation of the orchestra's manifold strengths and respect for the conductor's attention to balance.

Temirkanov was rewarded by his new orchestra with ferocious attention. String sounds were clear and incisive, woodwind playing precise and balanced, horns and trumpets warm and blended. Chaos was always intentional, never an unfortunate accident. Soprano Janice Chandler and mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby were well chosen, and used as elements within the musical construct rather than soloists dominating it. The BSO chorus sang its opening whisper of resurrection--"Auferstehen"--with a sound familiar from Robert Shaw, a fully fleshed whisper, at the limit of a large chorus's ability to sing a shade above silence.

Baltimore and the orchestra made the evening an event. Outside the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a searchlight cut laserlike swaths through the cold night sky. Mayor Martin O'Malley gave the new conductor honorary Baltimore citizenship. But musical protocol and political protocol don't mix well; Mahler's monumental symphony was the point of the evening, and Temirkanov seemed uncomfortable receiving his first huge ovation before having conducted a note. But that discomfort represents the strengths this cultured, dignified and exceptional conductor will bring to the orchestra: a style long on substance and refreshingly free of empty gestures and self-aggrandizement.