Fanfare Contributor Bio
James A. Altena
Unlike most Fanfare reviewers, I stumbled into classical music all on my own at age 11 in 1969, with no previous family exposure whatsoever. My mother's preferred "easy listening" music station in the Detroit suburbs was advertising a six-LP set of "100 Great Moments in Music" (actually 150), featuring two-minute excerpts from famous classical works (mostly 19th c. orchestral). My mother said of a couple of snippets from those, "That sounds nice," and my brother and I decided to order it for her as a Christmas present. My mother never listened to a note of it, and my brother soon gravitated to rock music, but I was deeply hooked from the start and have never looked back. (I remember making a list of twenty-one works from that set and thinking that if I bought those, I would have all the music I would ever need!)
As a teenager buying budget LPs at Korvette's, I acquired a few Odyssey LP issues with Bruno Walter, and with those a musical hero who remains my touchstone for great conducting. In my early 20s my horizons were expanded to opera and historical recordings by a good friend, a philosopher with a Ph.D. in logic and an encyclopedic knowledge of acoustical and early electrical era singers, who sharpened both my intellectual skills and musical standards. The historical angle dovetailed nicely with my B.A. in history from Wayne State University in Detroit, and an M.A. in history and work on a Ph.D. in the history of science at the University of Chicago. Alas, said Ph.D. was almost but not quite completed, but the research on it provided two unforgettable experiences -- eight months in East Berlin in the old GDR during the fall of the Wall and reunion of Germany in 1989-1990, and three months in Jerusalem in 1994. The stay in Berlin included attending the fabled "Ode to Freedom" performance of the Beethoven 9th led by Leonard Bernstein. Since 1993 I have lived in Philadelphia, where I was finally blessed with a lovely wife in 2005. After toiling in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy for 13 1/2 years, I left that employment due to health issues; at present I teach as adjunct faculty in the liberal arts at Villanova University while working once again upon a Ph.D. degree, this time in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, where my wife (a Ph.D. from the U. of Pennsylvania) is director of the Center for Theological Writing.
On Joel Flegler's kind invitation, I joined the staff of Fanfare reviewers early in 2010, and became the magazine's assistant editor in July 2013. My personal collection is modest by the standards of some Fanfare reviewers (a wonderful group of colleagues, with whom I have formed some great friendships) -- about 4,000 CDs, 700 LPs, and perhaps 100 video in various formats. However, through other venues (e.g., collections of friends and university and public libraries) I have a far broader acquaintance with recorded repertoire. I am also blessed to have in my larger circle of friends professional performing musicians, music scholars, and dealers in used classical music CDs and LPs. While my tastes run from Gregorian chant to Penderecki, among my particular interests are historic recordings; brass music (I played trombone, euphonium, and bass tuba as a student); sacred vocal music; and repertoire for the bass voice (my minimally trained basso profundo encompasses over two octaves, and I serve as cantor at my local Anglican parish church). Favorite major composers include Tallis, Schütz, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Bruckner, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Sibelius, Hindemith, Shostakovich, and Vaughan Williams; other composers whose works I collect include Bruch, Kalinnikov, and Magnard.