The special qualities of the Master Chorale's Christmas candlelight concerts have been familiar to Washington audiences for decades, and Saturday the first of this year's three performances did not fail: the solemn processional down the aisles of the darkened Kennedy Center Concert Hall, each singer bearing a small candle and reverently singing an ancient hymn ("Once in Royal David's City"), the 150 pinpoints of light converging on the stage, the voices growing stronger and more focused as they massed together onstage for the hymn's conclusion.

Also dearly beloved is the sing-along segment and the steady quality of the chorus--it's a large one but one with superbly controlled dynamics, precise intonation and finely balanced and blended tone that achieves richness without compromising textual clarity or emotional involvement.

Conductor Donald McCullough has maintained the high level of polish of the ensemble left to him by its founder, the late Paul Hill.

There are few surprises in this annual ritual; we like our Christmas celebrations to stick close to tradition, and the Master Chorale is happy to oblige. Though many of the familiar arrangements are lively, none are gimmicky.

If there was any surprise at the Saturday noon performance, it was the excellence of the American Youth Philharmonic, which responded with particular brio to its own music director, Luis Haza, who replaced McCullough on the podium for Leroy Anderson's colorful "Sleigh Ride" and two selections from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker."

"They are so good and so young," McCullough said, and the audience applause showed total agreement.

There will be repeat performances tonight and tomorrow evenings.