One hundred strong, the voices rose and swelled as one in a powerful chorus of "Gloria in Excelsis Deo"--glory to God in the highest.
But with a gesture from conductor Al Brightbill, the singers instantly halted.
"No, no, you came in too quickly--remember, assumption is the mother of all screw-ups," the silver-goateed conductor told members of the Saddleback Master Chorale. "Think about what you're singing. Feel it."
The group reached down a little further and, with extra emotion and strength, poured out the phrase once more. Brightbill said nothing while the chorale sang, but as he conducted the group, a small smile crossed his lips.
For 30 years, the Saddleback Master Chorale has been an outlet for the arts in South County. Side by side, nannies have sung with lawyers. People have met in the group, fallen in love and married, then brought their teen-age children into the chorale.
As the orange groves of South County have disappeared, replaced by mini-malls and housing complexes, the Saddleback Master Chorale has endured because "even as the membership changed, there has always been a real joy and energy here because we love to sing," said Pennie Foster, the group's accompanist since 1968.
"I don't know how the time has gone past so fast," said Foster, 50. "But it's always been fun for us. Even when I'm tired from working all day, I leave the rehearsals energized. There's a real spirit at work here."
The chorale was formed in 1963 to provide musical background to Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters.
For the past two decades, the group has been based at Saddleback College; all performers register as students for at least one chorale class. But like many other community organizations, the nonprofit group is in charge of raising its own money for expenses and holds fund-raisers such as art auctions, ice-cream socials and other events.
To join, prospective vocalists must audition. Brightbill tries to place those who are not ready for the chorale with a smaller singing group.
The 100-member chorale performs several times a year, with major performances in June and during the holiday season.
While not the size of the much larger Orange County Master Chorale, the South County group has received plaudits for its work. A technically difficult joint performance of Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem" with another chorale group last year was applauded by a reviewer for a major newspaper.
The South County chorale is trained by Brightbill, a Saddleback music instructor and professional singer who has performed with the Portland Opera and the Roger Wagner Chorale.
Brightbill's personality punctuates rehearsal sessions with the chorale. Before the group, he is an arm-waving, wisecracking leader who frequently engages in repartee with the singers.
During one session, he remarked: "I don't expect much, just perfection." Brightbill drops a song sheet and the chorale applauds sarcastically.
The chatter helps build a rapport between Brightbill and chorale members, which is important because their performances rely on the group's strong emotional interpretation of the material, he said.
"We spend a lot of time talking about the meaning of these pieces," Brightbill said. The chorale is "an emotional outlet for these people. Because of that, they can really move their audiences."