ORKNEY SPRINGS, VA. -- Eight years before there was a Wolf Trap Farm Park, and 11 years before the first Bluemont Concert, people came to this Shenandoah Valley hamlet 120 miles southwest of Washington to hear music under the stars.

In those early days, they listened to impromptu concerts given by musicians who gathered here in the 1960s for the annual conductors' workshop of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Inspired, perhaps, by the mountain air, or the lush wildflowers, or the town itself, in which every building save for the volunteer fire departmemt is white frame, the musicians each summer played the classics on the grounds of the historic Orkney Springs Hotel.

And pretty soon, folks got awfully used to it; and came to expect it. And the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival, now in its 28th season, was born.

With a roster of well-known regional performers, a strong network of private support, and grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment of the Arts, the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival is no longer impromptu. But this festival, which began last weekend and continues on selected weekends through Labor Day, is still a place where 1,500 people is a big crowd; a member of the Orkney Springs Volunteer Fire Department guides you to a parking place on the grass; and $1 buys a thick slab of homemade spice cake to enjoy before the concert.

Or as festival volunteer and former Fairfax County resident Judy Davison said: "It's a quaint, quaint, place."

This year, festival staff members expect about 15,000 people to visit Orkney Springs, where concerts take place in the pavilion and surrounding lawns of the 19th-century Orkney Springs Hotel.

They'll attend performances by a Brazilian song and dance group; folk singers Madeline MacNeil and John McCutcheon; a big band, Doc Scantlin and the Imperial Palms Orchestra; and the festival's symphony in residence, the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra.

Last weekend, the rain that pelted much of the Washington area held off here as families filled the pavilion and lawn to hear the symphony perform a pops concert Friday evening and classical selections Saturday.

The symphony will perform two classical concerts at the festival this weekend, featuring Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27 on Saturday.

The festival offers other diversions besides its evening concerts.

Last Saturday afternoon about 600 parents and children watched the Creative Opera Ensemble of Washington perform "Little Red Riding Hood."

Others browsed through the festival's arts and crafts show, where artisans sell everything, including crystal earrings, handmade placemats and Renaissance-style wooden flutes. The flutes are made and sold by Rob Yard, of Floyd, Va., who found himself surrounded last Saturday by folks who wanted to try one.

A lanky man with bare feet, a tie-dyed T-shirt and a shock of unkempt gray hair, Yard patiently instructed potential customers, some of whom required the most basic tutoring.

"You blow across this hole and it gives you the sound," he told one man whose attempts produced noise that more resembled the croaking of a frog than the music of a flute. "If you do it right," Yard encouraged, "you can actually get the flute to ring like a bell."

Bell-ringers proved to be scarce.

Across Route 263, the one street that runs through Orkney Springs, the women of St. Mary's Lutheran Church in nearby Mount Jackson were selling banana ice cream and at least 15 kinds of cake, including confetti and creme de menthe. Keeping them all straight was a challenge.

"How many flavors do we have?" asked one. "Fifteen? Sixteen?"

"We just got a new one," said another. "Caramel spice."

"I can't remember the ones we had," replied her friend.

Festival marketing director Roberta White said most festival visitors come from the Shenandoah Valley area between Winchester and Staunton, but at least one-third are from the Washington area.

"The Washington-area {attendance} is really growing, and so are our crowds from Charlottesville and Richmond," White said. "A lot of people make a weekend of it," by staying in the hotel.

The Orkney Springs Hotel was once owned by "Light Horse" Harry Lee, father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and is now the property of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. It had fallen into disrepair by the time the diocese purchased it in 1979, but by 1987, it was fully renovated.

Today, it is used for diocese conferences and festivals, as well as the annual fund-raising dinner-dance in November. Its rooms are also available to the public.

Last Saturday evening before the 8 p.m. concert, a slight breeze blew through Orkney Springs as guests lounged on the hotel's sprawling front porch. Some rocked in wooden frame rocking chairs as they sipped drinks, others sat on the steps fanning themselves.

"It's one of our biggest drawing cards," White said of the hotel.

The Shenandoah Valley Music Festival is a two-hour drive from the Washington suburbs, and can be reached by taking either Interstate 66 or Route 7 W. to Interstate 81 S.

From Interstate 81, take Exit 69 (Mount Jackson) and turn left onto Route 703. Then turn right onto Route 11 and right again onto Route 263. Follow Route 263 about 15 miles into Orkney Springs. For information, call (703) 459-3396.