BETHEL — Holiday music always seems to sound better at the beginning of the season. Riding in one of the first waves this year, the Connecticut Master Chorale's "Holiday Prelude Concert" was one of the best we're likely to hear. In their 9th season, they've cultivated their reputation for consistent high quality choral work, and their ever grow following filled the massive St. Mary's Church last Sunday.

They say timing is everything. -Music Director and Conductor Tina Johns Heidrich knows how to take advantage of timing, from traditionally choosing the Sunday before Thanksgiving, to the order of the selections in the program, to the rhythms and tempi of the tunes. Heidrich pays careful attention to a lot of details. And she has a strong support group to draw from, with 55 beautiful voices, balanced and blended to perfection.

They were accompanied by Joseph Jacovino, Jr. on piano and the Connecticut Master Chorale Holiday Brass, a dozen solid musicians that provided just the right touches for the chorale. They were all in fine form throughout the concert.

Opening with lots of brass and plenty of oomph, they were crisp clear in Richard Dirksen's "Welcome All Wonders." Simple but effective Basque harmonies joined by some nice trumpet work and Jacovino's piano formed an enriched texture for music set in heaven for the carol "The Angel Gabriel."

Soprano soloist Cindy Pena's gentle voice was joined by May Steinberg playing an ethereal recorder for the first portion of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" by Steve Dunn. The energy shifted as the chorale entered with simply gorgeous harmonies.

Anyone who ever had a dog got their hanky out for "Carol of the Stable Dog" by Corlynn Hanney, a good a cappella blend of the vocal sections.

You could almost hear the falling snow as the men sang the German carol "Still, Still, Still." May Steinberg's flute sounded wintery, while Sandy Chadwick's acoustic guitar gave warmth to the fireside song. Conrad Susa's "A Christmas Garland" was a medley that felt like a nostalgic stroll through a village decked out for the holidays.

After intermission they all came back with bounce in an exuberant gospel tune "They Had Joy!" by Chris Machen, arranged by Tom Fettke. Murray Mast on steel drums got everyone's attention for sure in a couple of calypso Christmas carols, with bass soloist Edwin Kotchian, sounding good in "Mary's Little Boy Child." These were the big crowd pleasers of the day. Personally, "African Lullaby" by Ruth Elaine Schram, with great piano and drums was goose bumps music, i.e. as good as it gets. I don't know where Heidrich finds her material.

The women's voices worked their magic in a new arrangement of the old chestnut "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Kim Gannon and Walter Ken, arranged by Mac Huff. Claudia Mickelson's clarinet solo got everyone dancing in the risers for the Hanukkah song "Al HaNissim" by Dov Frimer, arranged by Joshua Jacobson.

They closed with a more than a bit offbeat version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," arranged by Bob Chilcott. They took the "five gold rings" all over the musical map, with styles going from opera to torch song to Broadway.

With her musical compass pointing straight up to the North Pole, Heidrich came back for an encore with "They Had Joy!" one more time. It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas.