By Laurence Vittes
On January 27, 2014, the 300-year-old “ex-Lipinski” Stradivari, worth millions, was stolen from Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Frank Almond in an armed robbery after a concert. Local authorities recovered the instrument nine days later; the whole saga was chronicled by NPR, the BBC, and Vanity Fair. Now happily reunited with his fiddle, Almond is in his 20th season with the MSO. He had previously served as concertmaster of the Rotterdam Philharmonic with Valery Gergiev, and guest concertmaster of the London Philharmonic, and the Seattle, Montréal, and Dallas symphonies.
Almond had also achieved notoriety a year earlier, when his album, A Violin’s Life (Avie), traced the history of his storied Strad, named after Paganini’s great Polish rival, and the composers and violinists who once possessed it in music by Karol Lipiński, Schumann, Julius Röntgen, and Tartini—his Devil’s Trill Sonata, whose sinister implications seemed to have followed the Strad to Milwaukee in 2014.
After the CD made Billboard’s Top 10 in its first week of release, the dramatic turn of events in January 2014 ensured there would be a second volume, which is due out from Avie in early spring. I spoke to Almond in Milwaukee before he left to play chamber music with the Amernet Quartet in Miami, Florida.
What’s on the new CD?
It is music associated with the Lipiński Strad. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, a Sonata in B minor by Amanda Röntgen-Maier (Julius’s first wife, a Swedish violinist and composer, the first woman to graduate from the Stockholm Conservatory, who married and died very young), and Eduard Tubin’s Solo Sonata.
This was your second Kickstarter project. What changes did you make?
I asked for a lot less money this time, raised a lot more than we expected, and will use the extra for building out a website for A Violin’s Life: The Lipiński Stradivarius.
Was there anything good that came out of the robbery?
Because of the way it was handled, by the law, the MSO, the local press, it was more positive than negative. People got a clearer idea of what these instruments are, why they command such high prices, and that they’re amazing objects, which happen to be functional antiquities. It didn’t hurt also to make the knowledge public that if you steal one of them, it’s basically worthless. There’s no market for it. And no, there’s no secret person with a white cat in their lap directing the stealing of instruments.
What about the lucky few who are lucky enough to play Strads?
Everybody who plays Strads or other great violins on a regular basis, especially pros who travel with them, is looking at it differently now. Above all, they are raising their consciousness about how profoundly their musical instrument is a part of their lives as well as just being an object, how they interact with them and travel with them, take care of them; essentially, how they live with them.
What was your first meeting after the recovery like?
I walked into a room with the owner, and there it was. It was just the three of us. I looked it over. We stared at each other. I played some Bach. We took a few pictures, and I went to rehearse with [pianist] Bill Wolfram for a previously planned recital. The concert turned out to be the violin’s coming out and it was a circus: cops everywhere, news people everywhere and, at the time, the alleged criminals were still out on bail.
What was it like holding it for the first time?
It was not the same at first; it had been stuck in an attic at sub-zero temperatures inside a suitcase for ten days or so, and sounded funny. But it didn’t sound anywhere near as bad as I expected, even though one of the conditions of the proffer was that the instrument be returned in good condition. It’s almost unbelievable that there wasn’t more damage; only a few scratches on the back. Within a couple of days it was back to normal.
How did you get the news it had been recovered?
I was playing some previously scheduled concerts in Florida, taking a break from lie-detector tests and talking to the police, not wanting to interfere with what the negotiators in Milwaukee were trying to do. We were relaxing in a bar in Jupiter, Florida, when the Milwaukee chief of police called and told me they had found the violin. It was nine days after it had been stolen. There had been this crazy press roller coaster when it was stolen, and now it all started up again. The next day we drove across the state to our last Florida concert on that stupid road with the alligators. [Route 75, known as “Alligator Alley”] I flew back to Milwaukee the next day.
Switching to your role as Milwaukee Symphony’s concertmaster, how are things during Edo de Waart’s seventh and final season as music director?
The orchestra sounds great. There’s been a real transformation since he came. Of course, he was known for building orchestras, and Milwaukee was always a great orchestra, but sort of an underdog. When friends came into town they were always amazed. But these days. it’s one of the better orchestras I’ve ever played in; it has good energy, a lot of new players, enthusiasm among my colleagues and the community, too, and a whole constellation of events to come.