I've played Handel's “Messiah” a lot of times, but this one was pure joy.
Every year, the day after Christmas, Bill and Judy Sloan of Los Angeles hold a big Messiah sing-along at their house for their musician friends – and they have some amazing friends. (This year it also included a reporter and photographer from the LA Times, apparently!)
I got to know Bill at the Indianapolis International Violin Competition this September, where his 1714 Stradivarius and 1742 Guarneri del Gesù were featured in some experiments as well as in a audience taste test of modern vs. historic violins. Bill is a urologist who both plays the violin and makes violins, and Judy is a professor of law who plays the piano and is a mezzo-soprano.
Bill called me up last week and invited me to come to their house at 4 p.m. on the day after Christmas, for the Messiah, and bring my fiddle! So of course I did. It was no trouble figuring out which house was the Sloans' – as I climbed the hill, I could hear trumpets, then violins, violas and cellos, then singing... His home was filled with musicians. Bill told me that I was one of a handful of people he actually called this year – the other 60-plus musicians simply showed up, having come in years previous and knowing where to flock and when.
I found myself in familiar company, with friends I've played with before and Frank Fetta conducting, and wow, did it feel good.
I put my violin case in a bedroom to the side of the larger living room, then I made my way through a forest of chairs and music stands, where my friends Vera and Tamsen beckoned me to come sit with them in the first violin section. I sat on a wooden chair with a pretty cover, reading from a wooden stand. By the end, we had three violinists at our stand and Tamsen was standing! About a dozen sopranos stood over my shoulder, and Judy Sloan sat at the grand piano behind them. On the wall next the piano was a Chagall depicting a violin-playing horse, and directly behind us was a captivating photo of the young Heifetz – who actually played in this very house on occasion.
Conductor Frank Fetta stood in front of the fireplace, backed up to the point where his ponytail kept catching in the decorations. The trumpets sat right behind the first fiddles, so just imagine the choruses: trumpets sounding, professional singers singing in full voice, a string section, piano...so much sound coming from this little room!
While many of life's endeavors involve uncertainty, tough decision-making, the potential for ugliness and conflict... the Messiah is a sure thing. It's one of the most dependable and pleasurable kinds of projects that life can present. Why? Because a musical genius named Georg Frideric Handel laid out exactly what we are to do. If we follow the music right in front of us, then Hallelujah! We get more than two hours of beauty and joy – and fun!
With an army of reliable instrumentalists and vocalists who voluntarily showed up for all the right reasons, that's what we got. After every aria, the room burst into applause. Sometimes we played the same piece twice so that two singers could have a chance at it.
The Messiah has – depending on which version you are using – some 53 total arias, choruses, recitatives and interludes. Not all are regularly played at concerts. We played a few of the lesser-played ones. And we played the Hallelujah chorus three times!
And after the music: lox and bagels from our hosts. Thank you, Bill and Judy Sloan, for a beautiful evening!
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