James A. Altena Print E-mail
Contributor Biography

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-century 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 21 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 not quite completed, but the research on it provided two unforgettable experiences—eight months in East Berlin in the old DDR 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 (first time for both of us) in 2005. Music remains an avocation rather than a paying vocation (I earn my daily bread toiling in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy), but I attend a regular round of concerts at home and in New York, and avidly devour classical-music publications and broadcasts. My personal collection is modest by the standards of some Fanfare reviewers—about 3,500 CDs, 700 LPs, and a smattering of DVDs—but 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 musicians, music scholars, and dealers in used classical LPs and private-issue CDs. 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 almost three octaves, and I serve as cantor at my small church parish). Favorite major composers include Tallis, Schütz, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorák, Bruckner, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Sibelius, Hindemith, Shostakovich, and Vaughan Williams; other composers whose works I collect include Bruch, Kalinnikov, and Magnard.

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