Gustav Mahler may not have written any operas, but his longer symphonies approach, perhaps even surpass, opera in their metaphysical scope. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s excellent performance of the composer’s Third Symphony, heard Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, certainly had the feel of epic drama: funereal grief, ecstatic awakening, hushed birth of self-awareness and, finally, consummation.

Best of all, music director Marin Alsop has found her Mahler groove after her rocky first efforts on an unofficial symphony cycle with the BSO a few years ago. Both this performance and the season opener of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in September were excellent. The instrumental contributions here were top-notch across an expansive 100 minutes of music, with the trombone solo both prophetic in volume and, where needed, suave and polished. The off-stage post horn solo, the moment where the piece turns from nervous energy to meditative exaltation, was spell-binding, right on pitch and clean up to the highest notes. One could almost sense the assembled listeners collectively holding their breath.

Alsop also chose wisely in mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who pleaded mournfully, in Nietzsche’s words heard at midnight by Zarathustra, but also had the clarion power to soar above the massive choral and instrumental forces in the fifth movement. The women of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the Peabody Children’s Chorus delivered their brief but crucial parts with grace and energy.

The only disappointment was in the melting “Langsam” section of the sixth movement. The string section was lush in sound, but for some reason Alsop’s previously free sense of rubato stalled, making this section beautiful but too plain. Happily, her marshaling of the concluding climaxes erased the memory of that deficit, down to the pounding thuds of the doubled timpani.

Downey is freelance writer.