The first time Kenneth Kiesler heard the Utah Symphony, he was in town teaching others how to conduct. Now he is returning, as a candidate for the music directorship of the orchestra, to lead it himself in concerts Friday and Saturday, Dec. 6 and 7, at Abravanel Hall.

"That was for an American Symphony Orchestra League workshop at the University of Utah in 1994," Kiesler recalls from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich., "where the other lead teacher was Gustav Meier. And after one of the sessions he turned to me and said, `You know, I've never learned so much from a colleague.' Then he mentioned that he would be retiring as director of orchestras at the University of Michigan and would I be interested in the job?"Well, I wasn't, but I came and liked it and decided if I was ever going to be working with young musicians this was my chance. So when they offered me a full professorship with tenure, I took it."

That isn't Kiesler's only job. For more than a decade he has served as music director of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra and the Illinois Chamber Orchestra. From 1992 to 1995 - the year he accepted the U. of Michigan post - he also served as principal conductor and artistic adviser of New York's St. Cecilia Orchestra.

And what did he think of the Utah Symphony when he heard it nearly three years ago?

"I thought it was a very fine orchestra, and a wonderful hall," he says. "But I had the sense that it was an orchestra in transition, waiting to coalesce from a fine collection of individual artists into the cohesive unit I think it has the potential of becoming. Of course I heard them with a guest conductor, Jahja Ling, who only had a limited time with them."

The 43-year-old Kiesler's association with orchestras stems from his public-school days in his hometown of Nanuet, N.Y. "Would you believe that in that music program in that little town," he points out, "there were 12 of us who pursued professional careers?

"I started by playing trumpet, singing in choruses and studying theory and history and so forth, then conducted my first concert when I was 15. One of the music teachers was ill and they were going to cancel the concert, and I asked if they'd let me do it. And I did. I conducted Britten's `Ceremony of Carols' and after the concert someone asked me, `Is this what you want to do?' And that idea stuck with me and I decided it was what I wanted to do."

The next concert of Kiesler's that attracted attention was one he led at age 19 as an undergrad at the University of New Hampshire. And in this case the attention was national.

"I had seen a recording of Gershwin's `Rhapsody in Blue' that said it was the original jazz-band version. So being a brash kid, I got on the phone with both Earl Wild and Eugene List - who was the pianist on the recording - and found that the original version had not been played since 1925, and this was 1973. It seems the original score was tied up in a battle between the Gershwin and Ferde Grofe estates. So I wrote Ira Gershwin, and he and the Grofe estate gave me permission to do a not-for-profit performance and sent me the original score."

The result was writeups in Downbeat magazine and numerous papers around the country, after which the score was made available to the general public. Kiesler himself went on to serve as music director of the Rockingham Choral Society and Orchestra, continue his conducting studies with John Nelson and nail down a conducting fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival.

Aspen was where Kiesler encountered Fiora Contino, whose assistant he later became at the Peabody Conservatory, and the conducting teacher Julius Herford, whose influence was to prove seminal.

"His idea was that, in studying the score, we look between the notes and under the notes to find the true meaning, and internalize it. And that score is given life through our life experiences. That's one reason Giulini's B minor Mass is 45 minutes longer than mine."

The reference is not accidental. Carlo Maria Giulini was also one of Kiesler's mentors for several years in Europe. As was, in a different sense, Utah's Maurice Abravanel, after having relegated Kiesler to second in the 1987 Stokowski Competition.

"Maurice was chairman of the jury and told me he had vetoed the rest of the jury's decision because, although he was very pleased with my performances of the Brahms Second and `Jeu de Cartes,' he thought the Andante from the Mozart 39th was too fast, not slow or expressive enough. And that turned out to be the crux of many of our conversations - about tempo and style in Mozart and Beethoven."

Thus, one of the works he will be conducting Friday and Saturday is an old Abravanel standby, Mahler's Symphony No. 1 - "to pay tribute to Maurice" - on a program that begins with a Mozart symphony, in this case No. 32. And in between will come a comparative novelty, the Violin Concerto No. 8 of Ludwig Spohr, with concertmaster Ralph Matson as soloist.

"My repertoire is very broad," Kiesler acknowledges, "from pre-Bach to a number of commissions and premieres. I have involved myself for certain periods of time in baroque music and new music and worked with Giulini on the symphonies of Brahms, Schumann and Schubert. And, much like Maurice did, I have conducted all but two of the Mahler symphonies.

As for what else he might bring to the Utah Symphony, Kiesler says, "I have a good deal of experience in being a music director and building an orchestra. Not that the Utah Symphony requires building, but every orchestra requires a music director's leadership and vision. And the music director needs to be involved in the community, along with the musicians, as the voice of the future of serious musicmaking.

"Contrary to what many think, I think this is a great time for symphony orchestras, as people are becoming isolated by the Internet, e-mail and watching videos. I think we will increasingly crave the community experience. And though I love the NBA, it doesn't provide the communal experience of a great work of art."

Starting time for Kiesler's concerts is 8 p.m., with tickets priced from $12 to $35. In addition, he will conduct complimentary pre-concert discussions each evening at 7:20.

For information call 533-NOTE.