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Classic Moments

THE BALTIMORE 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."

Both men shared the motto "Semper Fi" - one on a baseball cap, the other on a wheelchair sticker. They also shared a love of English music. Some might find it strange that a soldier should comb the world for records of the English pastoral composer Gerald Finzi, who's not exactly a bestseller in the United States. But then, as the explanation went, a good soldier thinks of the beautiful world he's fighting for, not the hell he's fighting in. And boy, that guy can orchestrate!

One morning, a Catholic priest came in, sadly clutching a $30 gift certificate that he'd been given as a Christmas present. Sadly, because he was about to retire, and he was trying to cut down on possessions in readiness for the priests' home. He'd just given away most of his record collection, and now he was expected to buy more.

He spent nearly an hour morosely flicking through the CD browsers, until another customer, an old gentleman clutching a bag of groceries that seemed to consist mostly of dog food, came to the counter and asked the price of a complete "Tosca.""$36.78, sir."

"Oh, I can't afford that. My dog and I ..."

"Yes, you can!" came the cry from the far end of the store.

The priest scurried up to the counter, beaming with sheer relief, and pressed the gift certificate into the man's hand. This was not a member of his congregation, or his church or even his religion, but the man went home with his records. Two happy customers.

At least two of Baltimore's clergy subscribe to a more muscular concept of practical Christianity. These steely eyed ministers came in one Saturday morning, looking for, of all things, a recording of the Internationale, the battle-hymn of the Communist Party. And they were deadly serious.

When the clerk showed signs of not being familiar with it, the two collared firebrands treated the terrified passers-by to a rousing chorus of the sort of Marxist fervor that is seldom heard in the Rotunda Mall. Good voices, too. When Baltimore goes to the barricades, just phone Recordmasters for musical support. Sousa marches are also available for the opposing team.

Religion of one kind or another is a recurring theme in the Recordmasters cast of characters. The flamboyant, exotic leader of one of Baltimore's newer, less conventional faiths is also one of the city's most frighteningly learned opera buffs (though his almost unspellable Sanskrit name has been known to cause crying fits in the mail order department). His only serious rival in operatic knowledge is a rabbi. Hearing the same opera plot explained in terms of both the Talmud and the Vedas Upanishads (very helpful, by the way) is one of more refined pleasures of visiting the store.

Mail order is the front line in the modern record retail business, with online sales now threatening to make the walk-in record store a thing of the past. Accordingly, Recordmasters' mail order department gets the really tough assignments, daily doing battle with the real experts in musical guerrilla warfare.

Scattered across the country, from Oregon to Ohio, from Waikiki to Kalamazoo, is what seems to be a small but dedicated band of musical Unabombers, all apparently living in cabins halfway up mountains and serenading themselves with classical music while plotting the downfall of industrial society. All have preposterously obscure tastes, and all speak in barely audible, slightly sinister whispers while ordering their CDs of the music that Engelbert Humperdinck wrote to serenade the Krupp family or Stockhausen's music for string quartet and four helicopters (not a joke - and not much fun, either).

These are classical music's hard men: at least one sounds like he should be stroking a large cat while wondering what to do about that irritating Meester Bond. Single orders of several hundred dollars are not unknown, which is why requests for such arcana as "Turandot" in Romanian are not normally greeted with gales of derision, at least, not until the phone is put down. Shark tanks and/or a laser-assisted bris await the UPS man who turns up late with a Recordmasters package. These guys are mean.

Classic Rap? No, we don't have it. Trust us. Even if it does say "Classics" over the door and the customer appears to be fingering a large, heavy salami with murderous intent (yes, this really happened). And if your small son has smeared your "Messiah" CD with peanut butter and pushed it into the video, you might not be eligible for another copy free, even if you're an attorney and "know your rights."

But, if you want the very best in background music for plotting revolution, or music without dead people, or a surprise lesson in real human goodness from some very surprising people, you know where to go.

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