A Mystery Guest at Barnes and Noble
In the early 1980s I put myself through graduate school at NYU by working in the classical records dept. at Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue. Back then it was records, thank you very much. Not CDs.
In 1981 the new craze was all digital recording. RCA Red Seal was celebrating this new technology with a brand new recording of Messiah, just in time for the Christmas rush.
Richard Westenburg conducting Musica Sacra, a fine New York based choir. Musica Sacra performed Messiah every year in Carnegie Hall. They were very high profile. RCA didn’t skimp on the soloists: Judith Blegen, Katherine Ciesenski, John Aler and John Cheek. Judith Belgen at the time was the post-Roberta Peters, pre-Kathleen Battle light soprano of choice. Even Johnny Carson loved her.
I was the department manager when an RCA truck pulled up at the loading dock on 48th Street and unloaded endless piles of this pricey 4-record set. 500 copies had been ordered for sale (not by me). The set retailed for $25.00–peanuts today. Back then you could get a complete, wonderful recording of Messiah for half that. This was no bargain. RCA and B&N were selling the new technology, and had high hopes for a killing.
Our department wasn’t large. We had stacks of this heavy 4-LP set everywhere. In the bathrooms, in the hallway, in the aisles. If you sat down you were sitting on the Messiah. And we played it all the time. Gotta sell these puppies. Over and over again.
Now, believe me when I tell you I love Messiah. I listen to it winter and summer, spring and fall. I have my own quirky taste in recordings and performing editions, which we’ll save for another time.
This new RCA recording was nicely done. There was nothing wrong with it and it sounded wonderful. But by December 24, 1981 at about 11 AM I had had enough. There I stood by the cash register, arms crossed, glaring. Yes, it was playing. “For unto us a child is born,” and hurry up, already. A man came up to me with a copy in his hand.
“Pardon me, do you like this new recording?”
“It’s fine. You’re listening to it now.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s nice, but I think its over-priced. I can sell you a better performance for less money.”
“Really? What about Judith Blegen?”
“What ABOUT Judith Blegen?! She’s a nice chirpy soprano. Joan Sutherland she’s not.” (C’mon, it was Christmas Eve in retail. You wouldn’t have traded places with me.)
By now the gentleman was laughing. He brought over a petite attractive woman, nicely dressed.
“This is my wife. Can you tell her your opinion of Judith Blegen?”
“She’s fine. She’s a nice little soprano, Who–ca—–
Oh. Because of course the lady in question WAS Judith Blegen.
Who, God love her, laughed uproariously and gave me a kiss.
And who sent me house seats to hear her in Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, which she sang brilliantly. I sold records at Barnes and Noble. What did I know from house seats at the Met?
But my God. All those stacks of that recording!