Classic Moments

Politics, passion, pomposity and scores of eccentrics make life in a record store's classical music department tricky, trying and richly rewarding

July 31, 2000|By Bill Scanlan Murphy | Bill Scanlan Murphy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Have you got any of that thar New Age Flamenco Sweat Lodge gittar music?"

Er, maybe. In fact, yes. It sounds like Hank Williams stamping out a fire in a wigwam, but we've got it. Always wondered who listened to this stuff.

"An' is he usin' gut strings? Cain't stan' them wire things."

Er ...

"An' he don't use them low strings too much, do he?"

This very choosy gentleman is known to his hapless victims as the Hillbilly From Hell. Roughly once a month, he gets out of his rocking chair, puts away the shotgun, turns off the radio (permanently tuned to the local Native American Flamenco station) and drives several hundred miles to test the Zen-like patience of those of us on the classical music staff at Recordmasters in Baltimore's Rotunda Mall. Stories of straws quite literally being drawn to decide who serves him are probably exaggerated. But not much.

Another customer once approached the counter with a large pile of compact discs of Haydn string quartets - nearly a hundred dollars' worth. As the clerk cheerily rang them through the cash register, the customer leaned forward and intoned:

"They are all still alive, aren't they?"

"Who?"

"The people on the records. I don't like listening to dead people."

"Well, Haydn's not too well, is he?" came the reply.

At other times, anxious and even angry questions have been asked about the religious affiliations, race and even politics of various musicians; the concept of a liberal clarinet trio was too much to bear, apparently.

Sometimes, the customers are, well, a little less than erudite. Many come in search of "The Fat Guy" (Luciano Pavarotti), "The Blind Guy" (Andrea Bocelli) or "The English Kid" (Charlotte Church, who's Welsh, not English, by the way). Miss Church, now a burgeoning 14-year-old, is in some danger of being eclipsed in classical music's Little League by the slightly terrifying "Little German Kid"-12-year-old violinist Maria-Elisabeth Lott. This microscopic blond girl, complete with Barbie-size violin, has a huge following in the German community. One rather alarming fan who sounded like George C. Scott auditioning for Colonel Klink bought six copies, then went home and phoned in an order for 10 more. And he wanted them schnell!

At times things do get lost in translation. One customer rushed in fresh from hearing the Argentine pianist Martha Argerich playing Mozart on WBJC. But by the time he arrived, poor Martha had been transformed into Mo and Artie Rich. Another wanted something by the famous American baritone Shrill Mills, who, fortunately, was soon found filed under his stage name - Sherrill Milnes.

And who can forget the woman who wanted "something by Pushney - maybe `The Bomb' "? No, don't call the FBI. She wanted Puccini's "La Boheme." A stamp collector came in demanding "anything by Wocktakobny." He even produced a stamp with this famous composer's name on it. "WOCTAKOBNY" is Shostakovich - in Cyrillic lettering.

Some customers are interested in more conventional music and musicians, but to a degree that would terrify the average concertgoer:

"I'm looking for a CD of Maria Callas singing in Buenos Aires, early '50s. You know, the concert that they recorded on pieces of waxed cardboard?"

Yes, it exists, and yes, Recordmasters had a copy. The customer seemed almost disappointed. Beating Recordmasters is an acknowledged blood sport among Baltimore's music aficionados.

Then there are the compleat collectors: the Toscanini freaks and the Ricardo Muti-Walks-on-Water squad, who will pay anything - anything - to own a CD of their hero doing the stick-waving equivalent of singing in the shower. Singers are especially prone to this sort of adulation, no matter how strange the repertoire. Callas Sings Jerry Lee Lewis would be a strong seller, and Jessye Norman Sings Michel Legrand is selling, though at least one customer wanted the CD double-bagged in plain brown paper before he would risk being seen leaving the store with it.

But Recordmasters' customers are not just musical eccentrics. In their own small way, they are America - a cavalcade of a very special sort of history. People who are looking for the emotional solace of music inevitably bring their lives in with them, and it's impossible not to see and be touched by it. Strange and sometimes almost heartbreaking scenes have been enacted on the small stage that is the Classics Department.

A man in an electric wheelchair, a veteran whose horrific war injuries had left him with movement only in his right arm, still managed a fantastically slow, but militarily perfect, salute to another customer who had just come in. Everybody in the store froze, impossibly moved.

"At ease, Marine."

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