You could call him the chief Chieftain, this Paddy Moloney with his elfin grin and leprechaun-like laugh. It's a face full of character, with a brogue to match, as he talks about the Irish group's upcoming concerts with the Utah Symphony, Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall.

"It won't just be symphonic stuff," he says of the program, which not coincidentally will follow that day's St. Patrick's Day parade in downtown Salt Lake City. "We'll be doin' music we've done for film scores" (in particular he cites the Richard Burton "Tristan and Isolde," which he reminds me was originally an Irish legend, and "The Year of the French"); "music from `The Chieftains in China,' " the film record of their visit to that country when they became the first group ever to perform on the Great Wall; "Kevin (Conneff) will sing a couple of songs. In other words it's goin' to be a big Irish party, with a few musicians from Utah thrown in for good measure."Included will be music the group contributed to the National Geographic special "Ballad of the Irish Horse," "Planxty Mozart," a Chieftains-style tribute to that composer's music, and "Carolan's Concerto," still the best-known work of the blind Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan (1778-1841), whose music the Chieftains have done much to revive.

"It was the first piece of his I knew," Moloney says, "when I was 8. Then later I got hold of the O'Sullivan collection of Carolan tunes. He was the last of the great Irish harpists, but if I say that onstage Derek (Derek Bell, the group's harpist) gets up and walks off."

More importantly, Moloney says, "you're goin' to hear the Chieftains as the Chieftains," first in a piece called "Drowsy Maggie," in which each of the band's six members has a solo, then via music from their latest album, "A Chieftains Celebration."

"It's the first real Chieftains album in a while," Moloney confesses. "We'd done so many others, like the one with Jimmy Galway and `Celtic Wedding' (a musical tour of Brittany), and guested on other people's albums, like Van Morrison ("Irish Heartbeat"). People were sayin' `When are ya goin' to do it?' "

As such it marks the group's 21st album, commemorating their 25th anniversary last year. As it happens that coincided with Moloney's 50th birthday, an event Dublin's Trinity College took notice of by awarding this son of Irish folk musicians an honorary doctorate in music. "They went mad," he says with a chuckle, "but don't expect me to start makin' house calls." Then he adds, "No, it was a great honor, not just to me but to Irish music in general. It's the first time a traditional musician has been given anythin' like that."

Were that not enough, Moloney says, the Irish government recently named the group its official musical ambassadors "and threw a little party for us before we came away. Because, you know, we're spreadin' the gospel about where this great music comes from. Every year half a million Americans attend our concerts and they all come back."

The future didn't look that bright when the group started. That was in 1964 at the behest of a friend who owned a record company, the Dublin-based Claddagh label. "There were only four of us then," Moloney recalls. "We got the name from the Irish poet John Montague, his `Death of the Chieftain.' " In Moloney's words that first album "just took off. Even the Rollin' Stones people came to listen to it."

Moloney himself ran Claddagh for eight years, but even with the group's expanded concert and recording schedule he and his mates didn't give up their day jobs until 1974. (Moloney was an accountant.) "That was when we gave our first concert in the Albert Hall in London," he remembers, "and it was sold out. We did that twice that year and decided that was it."

The orchestral collaborations began in 1977. "I think we were the first to try usin' the pipes with a chamber orchestra, with `Tristan and Isolde,' and everybody loved it." The pipes Moloney refers to are the uilleann (pronounced "illyan") pipes, the traditional Irish bagpipe; other band members perform on fiddles (Martin Fay and Sean Keane), flute (Matt Molloy), bodhran - the Irish drum - harp and tin whistle, among other instruments.

"It was just somethin' I grew up with," Moloney says of his own love for the music of his homeland. "It was like a language with me from the word go." His grandfather, he recalls, played the flute, his mother the melodion and his uncles were bagpipers. "In Dublin in those days there was a little nest of uilleann pipers, includin' Leo Rowsome, a brilliant performer. I studied with him at the Dublin College of Music." Eventually Moloney forged his own style, he says, "but it came naturally to me. It wasn't somethin' I had to go out and find."

Then, he estimates, there were about 25 pipe students in Dublin. "Now there are hundreds," many of whom belong to a society he helped found that offers instruction on making and playing the pipes and a collection of tunes it makes available "to anyone who wants them."

Harold Gottfredson, who will be conducting next weekend's concerts, he regards as a dear friend (they met following one of the group's performances at Utah State University several years ago) who is likewise spreading the gospel of authentic Irish music. (Both have longstanding ties to Radio Ireland.)

"We all contribute to that," Moloney affirms. "I set out on kind of a mission, to show people there was more to Irish music than `Mother Macree' and `Did Your Mother Come From Ireland?' That's why I'm not a very rich man. I've sidetracked a bit with orchestras and rock musicians - I'm on the last Mick Jagger solo album, also one of Paul McCartney's - but basically it's the music that's the No. 1 priority.

"After all, we have the greatest classical folk music in the world, with roots all over. Young people especially have been takin' to it in a big way wherever we play, in Italy, China" - he says they found we were able to exchange tunes with the Chinese - "or America. And not just Irish Americans. Susannah York said, `There's somethin' about the Chieftains and Irish music that gets me right in the gut,' and she's right. There's somethin' there that sparks somethin' in you - happy or sad, you have to respond. It's got so much to offer."

Also performing on Saturday's concerts will be the McTeggart Irish Dancers. Tickets for the matinee are $8 to $15; admission to the evening performance ranges from $10 to $17. For information call the Utah Symphony at 533-6407.