A ‘Messiah’ performance of, by and for musicians
It was the day after Christmas, and Eric Castro, a lawyer who also sings professionally, was warming up his baritone by running through trills and hums. After working hard right up to the holiday, wasn’t he eager to have a day off?
“To tell you the truth, it’s a complete pleasure and honor to do this,” said Castro as he prepared to sing arias inside a crowded living room where “jam session” took on a whole new meaning.
Each Boxing Day since 1998, the Spanish Colonial Revival house at the end of a cul-de-sac off Los Feliz Boulevard has vibrated with the sounds of Handel’s “Messiah,” performed by as many as 125 choristers and orchestral musicians.
Many of them have sung professionally with the Los Angeles Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and other vaunted companies. Over the years, the violinists, violists, cellists, bassists and trumpeters have included members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and other premier ensembles.
The hosts for the annual “Messiah” gathering are William Sloan, a urologist, violinist and amateur violin maker, and his wife, Judy, a Southwestern Law School professor, pianist and mezzo-soprano.
For this homegrown “Messiah,” performers cram bow to brow inside the living room. All have volunteered their time and talents for the sheer delight of performing one of the world’s masterworks without the pressure of moody audiences or critics.
“Messiah” sing-alongs are certainly common, but most performances usually take place in churches or concert halls.
“A ‘Messiah’ as a musical social event is unusual in music probably anywhere in the country,” said Frank Fetta, the ponytailed music director and conductor of the Torrance Symphony, the Culver City Symphony Orchestra and other regional ensembles, who has for six years conducted the Sloans’ “Messiah” happening. “This shows the great loyalty these musicians have to the Sloans and the great enjoyment musicians have doing this.”
Here, every soloist is a star, and every one receives an ovation. They come for the kudos but also to pay tribute to the two longtime music patrons who provide the venue, the Steinway grand piano, stringed instruments from their vast collection of rare pieces, and several scores.
Peter Marsh, a senior lecturer of strings and harp at USC’s Thornton School of Music and former first violinist for the Lenox Quartet, served this year as one of the concertmasters. Last year, he borrowed and played the “Sloaneri,” the Guarneri-inspired nickname for the violin that William Sloan spent 18 months constructing of Bosnian maple. (“Making a violin,” Sloan said, “is harder than surgery.”)
Prescribing a little “dessert first,” maestro Fetta asked the musicians to turn to the “Hallelujah!” chorus. And the 60 or so musicians launched into it with gusto.
The musicians who climb the curving tiled steps to the Sloans’ living room in time for the 4 p.m. downbeat (make that 4:30) look forward to hours of performing and potluck dining during intermission. (This year the Sloans provided 9 pounds of lox and 14 dozen bagels, along with four cases of bottled water.) Once the final notes of “Messiah” have faded, the musicians sometimes adjourn to the downstairs music room to play Baroque music.
The house itself also has an illustrious musical pedigree.
It belonged for many years to Alexander Borisoff, the late Russia-born principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who converted the lower-level garage into a music room with a stage where virtuosos such as cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, violinists Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein and even Albert Einstein played.
“The most spectacular use of that room was when the Emerson String Quartet played for Bill’s 65th birthday four years ago,” Judy Sloan said in a pre-"Messiah” interview one recent rainy afternoon.
In the bookshelves on one side of the music room are hundreds of books about musical instruments and music. Across from those are shelves filled with weighty tomes such as “Gray’s Anatomy” and “Urologic Surgery.”
The “Messiah” tradition started for the Sloans when they lived in Toledo, Ohio, from 1975 to 1991. Judy Sloan formed a madrigal group and at one point suggested a “Messiah” sing-along. As the Sloans’ two daughters — also musical — grew, they would invite their friends. The high school choral teacher would conduct.
In 1993, the Sloans moved to Emerald Bay in Laguna Beach, where they met Louis Lebherz, a towering bass with the Los Angeles Opera.
When Lebherz’s house burned in a massive fire that same year, he and his family moved in for a time with the Sloans.
“Louis and I had a ‘Messiah’ party, and it started again,” Judy Sloan recalled. For years, Lebherz conducted and sang, booming out Handel’s “The trumpet shall sound” aria. One year he brought Fetta, who would conduct whenever Lebherz sang. When Lebherz moved to Northern California, he handed the baton to Fetta, who has conducted for about six years.
It was music that brought the Sloans together in the first place. Judy Sloan, who was born in a small town near Macon, Ga., was a freshman on scholarship at the University of Chicago when she heard William playing violin. Having studied the instrument since he was a boy, the first-year medical student was assistant concertmaster for the university symphony.
“You play so beautifully,” Judy Sloan recalled telling him. “Do you need an accompanist?” She has accompanied him as spouse and pianist for nearly 46 years.
The Sloans anticipate many new faces in the crowd this year — friends of friends and singers from local ensembles. Once someone has tasted his or her first “Messiah” party, the door is always open. “Once you’re invited,” Judy Sloan said, “it’s a lifetime thing.”