Antal Dorati, the 78-year-old conductor and composer, has always been an adventurer.

"I will never forget the most important game," he said, recalling his high school ice hockey days.

"That was the one game when I was on the National Team of Hungary -- for one single game, because everybody else got sick.

"And that was the game when we played against the Canadians. And lost 36 to 0," he said, his bellylaugh filling the Watergate suite where he's staying.

"I was the goalie. And if I had not been rather good, we would have lost 60 to 0. The Canadians were just better. But the game was splendid. And the boys, you know . . . our eyes were shining. That's competition."

Dorati, the former Hungarian goalie who, as music director of the National Symphony, dominated music here through much of the 1970s, is back. Still an adventurer.

Last night's spectacular recreation at the Washington Cathedral of the mammoth May 26, 1784, performance in Westminster Abbey of "Messiah" for the centennial of Handel's birth, marked Dorati's return to the podium here after a 4 1/2-year break.

It is his first appearance since he ended a decade-long tenure with the National Symphony, seven years as music director, and three as principal guest conductor after Mstislav Rostropovich took over the orchestra.

The Dorati years marked the pivot of the orchestra's emergence from a listless past into its current era of giddy, if occasionally irregular, excitement. His imprint is heard not just in its sound, but in its level of sophistication. Few conductors could have begun to match his bold programming: in 75 programs, he conducted 64 works new to the orchestra, including 22 world premieres.

Why such an absence, then?

"Well, who knows?" said Dorati, who is scheduled to return to the National Symphony next season as a guest. "Maybe it's natural after such a period that you stop for a while.

"I don't think that anything happened, any special incident. It just so happened."

But, over the span of years, something did happen. There were tensions between Dorati and the orchestra board during his time here -- particularly concerning both the circumstances of his replacement by Rostropovich and the cancellation of a long-planned European tour in the summer of 1976.

In his autobiography, "Notes of Seven Decades," he described the situation he stepped into in 1969 as a "hornet's nest," writing that had he known he would "surely have refused" to come to Washington. And he added, "It is no secret in musical circles in the USA that the board of directors of the National Symphony and I did not get along." Members of the board at that time of the events protested his version of their dealings.

This weekend's "Messiah," which is part of the annual University of Maryland Handel Festival, is the kind of artistic bait that has consistently proved irresistible to Dorati during his 61 years of conducting.

"I didn't even dream of it," he said, "but Paul Traver the director of the University of Maryland Chorus called me in Europe a year and a half ago and asked me if I would like to do it. I did not actually have time. But it intrigued me so much that I managed to get this week free, and then I told him yes.

"This is a very challenging thing," Dorati said, gesturing to the array of "Messiah" scores laid out on his coffee table. "I will do my best. Traver knows that I am not a Handel specialist. I am a specialist in not being a specialist -- of anything, actually. But by my education I have a rather wide scope. Actually I come here and I am surrounded by Handel specialists, left and right -- scholars. And there are also the people who play the old instruments. They are a very special caste. They don't think the same way as we do. They don't eat the same way. Don't say the same. It's entirely different. And they know so much.

"And I'm here among them, very fresh . . . I don't mean that in the impertinent sense, I mean fresh as in the morning. The reason why I think it is all right that I do this is because they know all these things, and what you know is past, and they dream all these things, and what one dreams is the future. And I come in the middle and represent the present. I can do that. And it is not a compromise. It is the razor's edge between the future and the past."

Dorati's present conducting circuit includes the Detroit Symphony, the Stockholm Philharmonic, London's Royal Philharmonic and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. He has cut his conducting year from 45 to 26 weeks, and uses the rest of his time for what he calls "my new turning to composition."

Pointing to a hefty stack of paper on a nearby desk, he said, "That big thing, that's an opera. I just finished it. It is the biggest thing I have done. I hope it is good. It's a three-act work. It is almost three hours long. It is a biblical thing, the life story of Elijah. I take the whole thing, from the moment when Elijah is called upon to the moment when he mounts the chariot of stars . . .

"The text is by Martin Buber. It was, I think, the only thing he did in dramatic form."

Dorati, who has regularly composed for many years, said he has been creating the work "in my head" for 20 years and spent four years writing it. He plans to start sending copies of it around to potential producers as soon as he and his wife, pianist Ilse von Alpenheim, return to their permanent home in Switzerland. Dorati is now at work on his third composition for the famed oboist Heinz Holliger, and has received commissions for orchestral works from the Detroit and London orchestras.

"If I can write something in my life with one page that is really very good," he said, "then I'll be all right."

The advancing years have not made Dorati start to brood. "I am still not an old man, but a man of many years. I still book engagements two years in advance, and I look skyward and thank our God that he lets me book them, and that I am able to do them.

"In 1986 I'll be 80. I can hardly believe it. It's just statistics. I don't feel old. I have decided that I knew how to be young. And I hope and pray that I will know how to be old.

"So you will never see me a wreck. Never!"