published Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Concertmaster relieved 300-year-old Stradivarius OK after theft

In this photo taken on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond, playing the Lipinski Stradivarius violin in public for the first time since it was taken from him in an armed robbery, performs with pianist William Wolfram at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, Wis.
In this photo taken on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond, playing the Lipinski Stradivarius violin in public for the first time since it was taken from him in an armed robbery, performs with pianist William Wolfram at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, Wis.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MILWAUKEE — Violin virtuoso Frank Almond had spent years learning the nuances of the 300-year-old Stradivarius violin that its owner had loaned to him. So when the $5 million instrument was stolen last month and recovered nine days later, he was worried it might have sustained serious damage in the process.

Fortunately it turned out to be fine, he said Tuesday.

"One would expect that there would be some huge problem after something like this, but happily ... I played it a little bit and it was clearly in good shape," he said. There are some cosmetic issues but it is otherwise fine, he added.

Almond, the 50-year-old concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, had just finished a performance Jan. 27 and was putting the violin in his vehicle when someone shocked him with a stun gun, grabbed the violin and fled in a waiting van. Almond said the shock immobilized him for about 5 seconds but caused no lasting injury.

The violin eventually was recovered from the attic of a Milwaukee home. Two men, including one with a history of art theft, have been charged with being party to robbery.

Almond said he hadn't taken any special security measures with the instrument. He said if he'd been accompanied by an armed guard or had the violin handcuffed to his wrist, it only would serve to draw more attention to the instrument.

He said he was always more worried about being careless with it — maybe leaving it on top of his car and driving away, for example, or leaving it in a cab or having it stolen from under a cafe table during a meal.

The recent theft has him rethinking his approach now — he's more aware of his surroundings and more cautious about the possibility of robbery. He said the incident would prompt a review of security protocols.

"Everything's got to get looked at," he said, adding, "I fully intend to keep playing it. That's what it's for."

Almond played the Stradivarius on Monday night to a sold-out crowd in Brookfield. He said it was good to get back on stage with it and hopes that the national coverage that accompanied the theft would pique the community's interest in the Milwaukee symphony.

Almond got his start in music at age 5 due to the influence of his parents, both musicians. When he was 17 he became one of the youngest prizewinners in the history of the Nicolo Paganini Competition in Genoa, Italy, according to his blog. Five years later he was among two American prizewinners at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

He went on to serve as concertmaster of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in The Netherlands and now helps run the 83-person Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

After the robbery, he said police did a thorough job of investigating, even questioning him to make sure the theft wasn't an inside job. He said he wasn't offended and he had nothing to hide: "I'm not stupid enough to steal a Stradivarius," he said wryly.

At times he spoke of the violin, which a private donor has lent to him indefinitely, as though it were a person. He said he's spent more time with the violin than with nearly any other object over the past few years, and that its loss was disorienting and traumatizing.

Even so, he said there would be little value to keeping it safe by locking it up in a vault rather than sharing its fine sound and craftsmanship with the world.

"It's meaningless if it doesn't make a sound," he said.

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