The opening bars of "Jabberwocky" sounded as if the singers were spitting out the words.
That's the way it was supposed to be. But Jane Hardester wasn't satisfied.
Seated on risers, music in their hands, the singers did it again. Then again.
Biting, pungent, vigorous--but not perfect.
"It's a whole lot better than last week," conductor Hardester told her singers, obviously pleased but not content. "We still don't have the drama."
She said later that the music--which is about a dragon--"should sound like it's dripping with slime and schlock."
Under Hardester's no-nonsense direction, it got "schlockier" as the rehearsal went on, and perhaps it will be perfect by Sunday when the Jane Hardester Singers close their season with two concerts of popular music in the Recital Hall at El Camino College in Torrance.
In other appearances at the college this year, the group performed a fully staged Gian Carlo Menotti opera, gospel music with the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers as co-artists, and music by Mendelssohn, Brahms and Vaughan Williams.
The concerts underscore Hardester's idea that in one season her audiences should get the full spectrum of choral music. "We like to alternate a light concert with a heavy concert so people will have a varied choral experience," said Hardester, who has taught music at El Camino since 1962 and organized her singing group 10 years ago.
"There was a real need for an adult community group other than church choirs," she said. "We try to do professional work."
Some of the singers said there was also another need: a way for Hardester's students to continue to work with her after their classroom days are over.
"After you work with Jane," said tenor John Schwent, "it's not satisfying to sing with anyone else."
The Hardester singers have an ensemble sound and a vocal blend that comes from a longtime association. "When I bring people to see the group, everyone talks about its precision," said Janet Hook, a soprano.
Singers are loyal, with eight of the original members still on the roster of the 36-singer ensemble. And several are affectionate admirers of their leader, even though they call her a taskmaster.
"But she's a reasonable taskmaster who is willing to discuss things," Schwent said. "We all share in developing the end product."
Said baritone Cedric Taporco: "The final result is glorious music."
As with all community musical groups, the Jane Hardester Singers are an amalgam of full-time musicians--some with advanced degrees--aspiring students and, as Hardester put it, "music teachers, engineers and cooks." There is no pay, so they sing for enjoyment and, as one put it, to "stretch musically."
Hardester calls the group a "chamber choral ensemble," drawing a distinction between larger college or professional choruses with many more voices.
"The singers have to be better in a small ensemble," she said. "If one of them is missing, we're in trouble. It's like the difference between a string quartet and an orchestra."
The size of the group also affects the scope of its work, Hardester said, "we would never do the Verdi 'Requiem,' but we do Bach cantatas."
Just as El Camino gave birth to the group, the Torrance campus has been the site of most of its performances. It presents an annual concert series as the resident chorus of the South Bay Center for the Arts, the college's umbrella organization for the performing arts.
But it has branched out, performing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center and at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles.
When the singers appeared at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall in 1982, Times music critic Albert Goldberg--who called Hardester a "taskperson"--wrote: "The basics of choral singing have been well mastered: good balances, respectable intonation, reasonably clean enunciation and unanimity of spirit."
In 1985, the singers paid their own way to Europe for 17 days, where they performed in churches, including Chartres Cathedral in France.
"Jane said, 'Do you want to go to Europe?' And we said, 'Yes,' " recalled Schwent.
Opera star Carol Neblett--a Hardester student during the 1960s--joined the singers as soloist at a 1986 El Camino concert. The group has produced a standout of its own in Douglas Lawrence, a baritone best known for oratorio work, who sings with major American orchestras and has toured in Europe. He was a soloist with the Hardester group at El Camino in April.
The singers do annual performances at the Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, where they recreate a European cabaret setting. That will be June 18 and 19.
"It's wine, cheese and Irish, Scots and English music," Hardester said.