The Connecticut Master Chorale likes to get a head start on the holiday season, with their Holiday Prelude Concert just before Thanksgiving. They have an added reason to celebrate this year as they kick off their 10th anniversary season. Their decade has taken them to places like the White House and Carnegie Hall, under the musical direction of Tina Johns Heidrich.

Judging from the packed house for their concert at St. Mary's Church in Bethel on Sunday, the home crowd appreciates them as well.

The program was full of familiar texts and tunes in new surroundings. The presence of a brass and percussion ensemble to accompany the chorale promised a lot of fanfares and snappy rhythms and we got them, sometimes to the point of cliché. There were enjoyable discoveries, though, throughout the well-executed performances.

The chorus is a well-trained group, with a rounded choral sound and rhythmic precision. Words and vocal heft were sometimes lost in the church's large space, but the sound was generally well-blended and balanced. Mack Wilberg's arrangement of "Carol to the King" offered a military-sounding wind and drum underpinning to the carol, and the ensemble built up effectively to its climax.

Mark Hayes's arrangement of Luther's great "Mighty Fortress" hymn gave it a syncopated treatment that showed the familiar words in new relief. Here was one of the places throughout the concert where the singing struck me as careful rather than fully engaged, but the group did good work on the piece. The gentle phrasing of John Leavitt's "A Stable Lamp is Lighted" was effective, and David Jurman's tenor solo was expressive, if a bit hard to hear.

The tenor section as a whole was a bit underpowered (as tenor sections often are) in Greg Gilpin's "Adeste Fideles" for men's voices, but the singing was sensitive, with May Steinberg's attractive flute lines winding around the voices. John Gardner's "Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day" was a highlight for me, with its shifting meters and punchy rhythms applied to this old carol. Words were clear and the singers' enthusiasm was infectious.

Another pleasing moment was John Rutter's "Dormi, Jesu", sung with a nice lit and a sweet sound, well accented and with a good rhythmic pull. The gauzy harmonies at the end made a lovely impression.

Less effective was Randall Bass' "Praeludium Noel," a rather humdrum arrangement of well-known carols, with an especially saccharine piano accompaniment for the great English hymn "In the Bleak Midwinter." Glenn McClure's "Veni, Veni Emmanuel" and "Silent Night" were arrangements whose steel drum accompaniments seemed incongruous, especially in "Silent Night."

Other ventures into foreign cultures worked better. David Lantz's "African Christmas Spiritual" was sung with expert attention to the words, over a jumpy African percussion beat. Cindy Pena was a clear, if somewhat faint, soprano soloist. "Japanese Snow Song" featured simple harmonies with a subtle Japanese tinge, and the chorale sang it stylishly.

A welcome novelty was an arrangement of the classic "Blue Christmas" for women's voices, sung a capella in an arrangement that smoothed out the edges and added harmonic touches that didn't come from Elvis. The chorale's nod to the Hanukkah tradition, "Torah Orah," featured Claudia Mickelson's idiomatic clarinet playing and an emphatic, spirited, smoothly-accelerating, dance-like performance. Diane Wilkinson's gospel number "That Little Baby!" had the full instrumental ensemble rocking with the chorus in the chorale's signature style.

Heidrich led her forces with sensitivity and flair throughout. She picks repertoire that the singers can believe in and audiences can embrace. Joseph Jacovino, Jr. was a dependable piano accompanist and the brass and percussion players added spice to the holiday mix.