Violinist Frank Almond and the fabulous Lipiński Stradivarius made international headlines for the wrong reason not so long ago.
After a concert on a frigid Milwaukee night, two thieves emerged from a van parked next to Almond’s car behind the concert hall. One of them Tasered Almond, and they made off with the violin, valued at more than $5 million.
A media frenzy and an investigation involving Milwaukee police and the FBI ensued. The thieves turned out to be local knuckleheads with no idea of how to sell such an item. Authorities recovered it, undamaged, along with two very valuable bows, nine days later.
The theft occurred on Jan. 27, 2014.
On Tuesday, Nov. 17, Almond and the Lipiński Strad, which he has played since 2008 on indefinite loan from an anonymous owner, will appear in Corvallis on the stage of the LaSells Stewart Center at Oregon State University. Almond’s concert partner will be Rachelle McCabe, a professor of piano at OSU.
Almond has served as concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra since 1995. He also leads a vigorous musical life outside the orchestra. Almond created the Frankly Music chamber series in Milwaukee, frequently serves as a guest concertmaster at other major orchestras, plays widely as a recitalist, soloist and chamber musician, and he teaches top students at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
(Full disclosure: In my former capacity as music and dance Critic at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Almond and I got to know each other very well. I reviewed that fateful concert in 2014.)
Shortly after the incident, Almond joked that his agent called him to ramp up his A Violin’s Life programs and recordings, to ride the wave of publicity. Has that died down any?
“It seems to go in cycles, now,” Almond said in a recent phone interview as he drove 90 miles back to his Milwaukee home from Chicago, after a day of teaching at Roosevelt. “Certainly, more people know me now. It comes mixed with a morbid fascination about the violin itself, and that part of it might be a little out of proportion. But I really don’t care why they come. When they do, they usually stay and they usually like the music.”
Almond said that two feature films about the theft — a documentary in which he is involved and another he knows little about — are in progress.
“The films are examples of how this doesn’t go away,” Almond said. “But the whole thing does make it easier to get people interested. It’s probably more silver lining than not, but I still wouldn’t say it was worth it. The whole first year had an element of just getting through it. Only after the court proceedings ended a year later could I just sit back and say ‘wow.’”
A rich history
Almond has researched the Lipiński’s history deeply. He knows all about its former owners, among them Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1731) and Karol Lipiński (1790-1861), the great Polish virtuoso and friend and rival of Paganini. And he knows the wealth of music that first came to life on its strings over the centuries.
Almond created a website, A Violin’s Life, that abounds with luscious pictures of the instrument and articles about its distinguished history. He’s also built several programs around music connected to the violin. His "A Violin’s Life" CD, with William Wolfram, a pianist well-known to Corvallis piano fans, has sold briskly. "A Violin’s Life Vol. 2," fueled by a successful $23,740 Kickstarter campaign, will be released in May.
The Corvallis program, presented by the OSU School of the Arts and Communication, is part of Almond’s 300th Anniversary Recital Tour for the instrument, built in the Stradivari workshop in Cremona, Italy, in 1715. The program includes two pieces that connect directly to the Lipiński Strad: Amanda Rőntgen-Maier’s Sonata in B Minor and Tartini’s famous “Devil’s Trill” Sonata.
Tartini claimed that a dream of striking a deal with the devil, who “played me some pretty tunes,” led to this composition. He admitted that he couldn’t remember what he heard in the dream, but the music the dream inspired became a staple of the repertoire.
Classical music fans likely know the Tartini, but Almond found the obscure Rőntgen-Maier (1853-1894) as a byproduct of his research into the violin’s history. Amanda Maier, a Swedish-born composer, violinist and pianist, studied in Leipzig with Engelbert Rőntgen, concertmaster of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra. He owned the Lipiński, which eventually passed down to his son, Julius, a composer, who married his father’s talented Swedish student. The couple became important figures in the musical life of Amsterdam. One of their sons, also named Julius, took the violin to America, where he became the original second violinist of the Kneisel Quartet.
So Amanda almost certainly played the violin that Almond will play in Corvallis.
“Amanda Maier was unknown to me,” said McCabe, Almond’s pianist. “It’s a terrific piece, and bravo to Frank for seeking it out. Maier must have been a good pianist, too. The music has a quality of fantasy; it reminds me of Brahms and Mendelssohn, and sometimes Schumann.”
McCabe and Almond haven’t met, although they have many friends and colleagues in common, starting with Wolfram. They all attended the Juilliard School in New York. Wolfram has been Almond’s go-to collaborator since their school days, and McCabe and Wolfram were close friends in school.
McCabe and Almond have not engaged in deep long-distance conversations about the music, nor exchanged recordings of their parts. A few emails to arrange rehearsal time has been about the extent of it.
“There’s a lot of trust going on right now,” McCabe said, with a laugh. “I’m looking forward to it all coming together on a day and a half of practice. Some excitement comes with that.”
Franck’s Sonata in A represents the biggest technical challenge for the pair, but they’ve both played it a number of times previously.
“The Franck is unavoidable for any violinist,” Almond said. “It’s definitely the major piano element in this recital.”
The piano plays no role at all in Bach’s monumental Chaccone, from the Partita in D Minor. Many consider the 13-minute piece the pinnacle of music for violin alone, for its immense technical challenges, its compositional invention, and its gravitas. Jascha Heifetz made it his signature piece. Countless players have no doubt played the Chaconne on the Lipiński Stradivarius countless times.
“You play it, you put it away, you go back to it,” Almond said, of the Chaconne. “After the theft, I went back to it again. When you have a violin like this, you have to play the Chaconne.”