NEWTOWN -- As the pews at St. Rose of Lima Church were filling up last Sunday, I could overhear the buzz of numerous conversations, all talking about the Connecticut Master Chorale. It's no wonder why. It's no secret their concerts consistently generate musical excitement. Music Director and Conductor Tina Johns Heidrich has a real knack for selecting material and bringing it together in memorable performances.

Winter Concert had some bonus features this year, with three outstanding soloists, an enlarged orchestra, and a new composition, along with the 55 voices that have grown together with Heidrich very nicely. Fortunately they were all concert ready, with over 30 instruments adding additional strength to the ensemble.

They opened with the complete "St. Cecilia Mass" by Charles Gounod (1818 -- 1893), written in honor of the patron saint of music. The grand operatic arrangement began with "Kyrie," immediately bringing everyone together, setting the stage, or should I say tabernacle, for a glorious afternoon of music. Soloists Louise Fauteux, soprano, Joshua Kohl, tenor and Dan Kempson, baritone all had rich voices that combined well with each other, and the CMC.

Gounod's work built up drama in each of the parts of a Mass that is rarely performed anymore. The high point for me was hearing "Sanctus" for the first time in about 50 years since I sang it in a boys' choir, bringing on a tingling sense of nostalgia. (Am I dating myself?) I can only dream of sounding anything like Kohl's tenor voice. The piece, in fact the whole Mass, developed many crescendos, in volume as well as with harmonics. Kempson's melodic baritone helped power "Credo," singing alone, in duets, or trios throughout the Mass. Fauteux gave a gorgeous sound to "Benedictus," or any time she joined with the other vocalists.

Following intermission, Heidrich led a pared down ensemble in "Winchester Te Deum," a new piece by John Rutter (b. 1945). It is so new that Rutter hasn't completed the instrumental arrangement yet. Joseph Jacovino, Jr. played organ with a brass quintet and some nice percussive touches. The CMC gave a reverential treatment to the fresh work that had spare harmonies. Rutter would be more than pleased with the precise performance, and will undoubtedly get to hear the recording when it becomes available.

They concluded with the orchestra sounding larger than they actually were in "Ben Hur Choral Suite" by Miklos Rozsa (1907 -- 1995), arranged and reconstructed by Daniel Robbins. The film won lots of Oscars in 1959 and the music brought it back, scene by scene. You could see the slaves rowing in the galleys with the pounding cadence of the tympani, and picture the cast of thousands in the Coliseum in the "Parade of the Charioteers."

The score was played with epic grandeur, with the chorale singing wordlessly, as if coming from high above. It was quite emotional for Heidrich and everyone present.