The scene was a corporate cafeteria in Northern Virginia, the music began later than scheduled, and the orchestra was a small one with a low budget. But Saturday night's concert by the Virginia Chamber Orchestra was without question a gala event and one with international overtones.

Soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg had flown in from California, where she made her latest appearance on "The Tonight Show." Music director Andrew Litton had flown in from England, where he received standing ovations for his work as pianist and conductor in "Rhapsody in Blue" with the London Philharmonic.

The evening (with tickets available at prices up to $500) had a semi-improvised air, reflecting the fact that the stars had been thousands of miles away a few days earlier. One number, Mozart's "Don Giovanni" Overture, had to be dropped from the program, and the work scheduled to end the evening, Britten's "Soire'es Musicales," began it instead. "Our season at the Wolf Trap Barns will be much better organized," Litton told the audience, "and we will stick with the program as printed." Then the young musicians performed as though the Virginia Chamber Orchestra's Autumn Gala, held in the cafeteria of the Planning Development Corp.'s posh headquarters in McLean, were the most important musical event of the season.

For Litton, perhaps it was. He is the Exxon/Arts Endowment conductor of the National Symphony, which is -- on the whole and person for person -- a much better orchestra. But the Virginia Chamber Orchestra belongs to him as the NSO belongs to Mstislav Rostropovich, and with it he is beginning to develop his skills as an orchestra builder. There is still some building to be done; Saturday, he had to recruit a timpanist and a harpist at the last minute. Fortunately, Fred Begun and Dotian Carter of the NSO were available. Both will be featured as soloists in later programs with the Virginia Chamber Orchestra. Meanwhile, their presence greatly enhanced the first half of the program, and they joined the audience for the second half when Salerno-Sonnenberg gave a brilliant, intense performance of Bach's Violin Concerto in D Minor.

Litton's finest moments came in a superbly paced, dynamically subtle and artfully shaped performance of Mozart's "Prague" Symphony. This music brought the orchestra (notably the winds in the last movement) to its high technical standards. With this music director at its helm, the orchestra may have a distinguished future. At the moment, it seems to have no problems that money could not solve.