Uncle Sascha's House on Cheswick Lane, Los Angeles
(built in 1923), hosted many home concerts with the best
of the best.
A ‘Messiah’ performance
of, by and for musicians
By MARTHA GROVES, LOS ANGELES TIMES
DEC. 26, 2010
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
“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
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
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
The house itself also has an illustrious musical
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
“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.”