The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra had barely played the first bars of the first waltz at its annual Valentine Pops last weekend when the dance floor in the McLean Hilton's grand ballroom proved to be too, too tempting.

"This is embarrassing," a woman in a black cocktail dress whispered to her valentine when, to her horror, he whisked her past hundreds of elegantly dressed diners to be the first couple on the dance floor.

But with a full orchestra playing Strauss's "Blue Danube," this was an opportunity not to be missed, and other couples soon joined in.

The symphony's Valentine Pops, including cocktails, dinner, dancing and a concert, was started about five years ago to broaden the growing symphony's audience. It was moved to the Hilton after outgrowing a ballroom at another hotel.

"Sometimes you just hit a market," said Caroline Frankil, director of marketing and education. "People are looking for something to do on Valentine's Day and the Pops is really a nice thing to do."

Last year's event was the most successful, drawing about 700 music lovers. This year, about 460 people attended. Mary Cay Campbell, director of development, attributed the drop in attendance to difficult financial times. "We raised the ticket price because last year we sold out," she said. But since the economy has turned sour, "I think people aren't willing to spend that much." Tickets were $50 a person this year.

As a result of the lower turnout, the not-for-profit symphony lost about $10,000 on the event at a time when it, like other arts organizations, faces drastic cuts in public funding.

"I have to be optimistic because it's my job. We just have to beat the bush a little harder," Campbell said.

In keeping with the theme of the event, which was hosted by Robert Aubry Davis of WETA-FM, conductors William Hudson and Young Kwon Choi led the orchestra for such musical valentines as Strauss's "Thunder and Lightning" polka and "All I Ask of You" from "The Phantom of the Opera."

Baritone David Troup and his wife, soprano Dorothy Kingston, sang romantic show tunes such as Lehar's "Vilja" from "The Merry Widow" and "My Funny Valentine" from Rodgers and Hart's "Babes in Arms."

At the end of the evening, a lively band and a professional ballroom dance team -- he in tails, she in a feathery floor-length gown -- led hitherto shy guests to the dance floor.

Some guests came for love, and others for love of music.

Donald Rebsch, who has a music degree, bought seats at a singles' table with two bachelor friends.

"I decided I really have to meet someone musical," said Rebsch, of Shirlington. Looking back on previous relationships, he said, "there was something missing. I think part of it was the music."

Nathan Rogow said he was drawn to the Pops by "the theme of the valentine."

The Alexandria businessman passed the time listening to music and answering questions from a fellow diner about his work, the music and (ah, yes) Valentine's Day.

A passion for music drew Donald Hewitt to the ball, as well as about 30 of his friends from as far away as Greensboro, N.C.

The McLean consultant got to conduct the symphony in "Stars and Stripes Forever," an honor he won last year in a silent auction.

Hewitt accomplished the feat with zest and aplomb, such as when he deftly recovered the baton from the real conductor, who had walked off with it.

"My worst nightmare was getting up there without a baton," he later said, his voice still quavering with excitement.

Hewitt had dreamed of conducting a full orchestra for years, ever since he played alto saxophone in a high school marching band in Anchorage.

He described the thrill of conducting the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra as "being able to shape a sound. I've never watched a concert where I didn't say: 'Gee. I'd do that a little differently.' "

"I got to hear 'Stars and Stripes' the way I wanted to hear it," he said. "I was calmer than I thought I'd be. That comes from going through it in your dreams a hundred times."

The heady combination of violins, dancing, clinking wine glasses and elegant company was enough to melt at least one guest's heart.

Candyce McCann was Candyce Henderson when a friend from work persuaded her to go to the Valentine Pops two years ago.

The friend was John McCann.

"He asked me to go to an FSO concert. I turned him down . . . . I resisted him for quite a long time, but he was persistent," Candyce McCann said. "So one day, he walks into my office, picks up my calendar, points to the 10th, and says: 'February 10th. We're going.'

"The music was absolutely wonderful that night. There was an incredible tenor that absolutely gave you goose bumps," Candyce McCann said. "You just wanted to nuzzle up to the person next to you, whether you knew them or not."

John McCann also remembers the evening fondly: "It broke down three or four months of resistance," he marveled.

Last year, John McCann asked Candyce to the Pops again.

She went, even though her leg was in a cast from a skiing accident and she had only two outfits she could possibly wear and she had to sit through the entire concert with her leg propped on a chair and she felt awful.

Right about when the symphony played a piece called "The Man I Love," John McCann proposed to her. They were married in September.

With such a romance to be cherished, the new Mrs. McCann said, "we plan to come back here every year."