On a recent summer evening, about two dozen members of Alexandria's City Employees Choir were in the midst of rehearsing a rousing gospel number in the art room of a city recreation center.
Halfway through, musical director William Hubbard -- a Helen Hayes Award winner -- frowned as he heard a false note, then stopped the choir with a flick of his hand.
"Whoever is singing that is wrong," he said, pointing to the alto section, whose members looked back at him sheepishly. He sounded the correct note on an electric keyboard. "I have to establish that is correct . . . because if we start out wrong -- sacre bleu!"
Hubbard resorted to a French epithet for a reason: The choir was about to hit the big time. About 24 members of the choir, which is composed entirely of city employees, were just days away from an 11-day tour of France -- with stops in Paris and London -- as part of a musical exchange program with Caen, France, one of Alexandria's sister cities.
When officials from Caen, who visit Alexandria once a year, floated the idea of a musical exchange between the two cities last year, Mayor William D. Euille's first thought was to nominate the City Employees Choir to make the trip. Ultimately, the choir beat out several other local candidates, including the Alexandria Harmonizers, a barbershop chorus, for the right to make the journey.
"It was a tough decision to say what musical group would best represent the city. . . . I came down on the side of, 'Let's give the choir the opportunity,' " said Euille, one of the group's biggest boosters.
But with the decision came new challenges for the informally organized choir, which was formed in 1996 by a group of city employees who wanted to sing for Alexandria's observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, according to Rose Williams Boyd, the city's director of citizen assistance.
With a repertoire of gospel tunes -- the mayor's favorite is "Amazing Grace" -- and patriotic numbers, the choir quickly became a local favorite and often performed at city events and other functions.
The European performances would be different. The choir would have to raise more than $64,000 to make the trip, get new robes and perform five concerts for audiences that included members of the diplomatic corps and other officials.
"Before now we were really an inside job," said Patsieann Misiti, 45, a choir member and employee of the city's fire department. "No one really knew we had a choir. Now we've been fundraising and getting more well known. After this trip we might go nationwide!" she quipped.
But getting the little choir to the big time would not be easy. During the spring and early summer, the choir held bake sales and put up a table at a farmers market on Saturdays.
In the end, members were able to raise only $14,000, though city officials were hoping more would be raised after the trip through corporate and other donations. Choir members -- many of whom were making their first trip to Europe -- had to pay their $1,300 trip fee themselves. The city gave members the option of paying for the trip through weekly payroll deductions.
But the really scary news arrived earlier this summer. A hefty sheaf of music that the group would be performing with two other choirs arrived from France: a 30-page "lamentation pour soprano solo, choeur et piano." It was Charles Gounod's "Gallia," which was to be performed in Latin.
"My first question was, is this mandatory?" said Hubbard, 46, an Alexandria native who performs locally at MetroStage and has been nominated for three Helen Hayes Awards for his work at Arena Stage. He won a Hayes Award last year for musical direction of the work "Crowns." The city hires him from time to time to whip the choir into shape for special occasions, such as this one.
But Hubbard didn't have time this summer for extra rehearsals for Latin, so the city hired a Prince William County music teacher to work on the language with the choir in addition to the work the group was already doing with Hubbard.
While thrilled to be making the trip overseas, choir members worried that they would not be able to grasp the Latin in time for the performance and wondered how they would be received by Gallic audiences not used to their gospel-flavored performance and delivery. Around Alexandria, their audiences always seemed to get caught up in the moment and clap along with the songs. Would the French be the same?
Choir member Tracie Forte, 35, who manages a city recreation center, said the group was in a state of "anxiety and nervousness."
"It evolved," she said. "The immediate emotion was excitement . . . [but] as we drew closer it became anxiety. What would we sing? What would be wear? All the questions started surfacing. . . . But we're going to sing beautifully. They're waiting for us to come. Tranquility set in. This is going to happen."
Nerves were stretched to breaking point shortly before the group's departure June 30. At one of the last rehearsals, choir members argued over whether they should wear full white or their new blue choir robes with the city insignia for some performances.
"You know, I have been left out of so many things," Hubbard said grumpily, after hearing the idea of the all-white costumes for the first time. "Was anybody ever going to tell me that? There's always somebody left out of some loop. . . .I have to say it, or it lives in me and it's going to be toxic."
Chaos ensued. Would the choir wear full white? Casual white? Dressy white?
"We need not to get stressed," Forte finally said, with some force. "We are going to France! Let's just pack what we have and go on and sing!"
So that's what they did. Their bus was late taking them to the airport and, once in Paris, soloist Evelyn Harper's bag -- with her new choir robe inside! -- got caught on the baggage carousel and had to be rescued by a baggage handler.
But by the fifth day of the trip, all the hard work seemed to be paying off. After an emotional tour of the Normandy beaches and the American Cemetery on July 5, the choir finished off the day with a solo performance in an ancient church in the village of Tracy-sur-Mer.
"The church was perfect. The acoustics were wonderful," said choir member Jacqueline Jones, 42, an employee in the city's finance and business tax office. She could hardly believe the setting in which she was standing, the church with its ancient cemetery outside.
The church was filled to capacity, with about 200 in standing room only. The French audience really got into the music, singing and clapping along with the gospel song "Oh Happy Day," Boyd reported. The choir got two standing ovations.
Alexandria's mayor was sitting in the front row, cheering the choir on.
"I was so touched and overwhelmed, I teared up and started wiping my eyes. Then a couple members of the choir said, 'Oh, look the mayor's crying,' and they started to cry," Euille recalled, once he was back in the United States. "I told them afterwards I was crying tears of joy. . . . I thought they were such wonderful ambassadors for the city."