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Second Fiddle
A thoughtful conversation – conducted at arm’s length – with the anonymous owner of the Lipinski Stradivarius.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

After a certain robbery in January, two questions were on everyone’s mind. Just who was behind the scheme to pilfer the Lipinski Stradivarius played by Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Frank Almond was question No. 1. But as more details began to emerge about the instrument Almond had been playing on loan since 2008, a new puzzle began to nag. Who was this person who entrusted the musician with an antiquity worth some $5 million? Although we fell short in identifying the woman, known only as “Char,” we did learn that she’s in her 60s and considers herself a “rather nice, thoughtful person who lives a fairly ordinary life.” Almond, however, describes her as “remarkable,” and she took care to compose the (abridged) answers below.

What can you tell us about yourself?

I grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, having studied art history. In recent years, it has been my privilege and joy to own the Lipinski, although I think of myself as caretaker of a cultural treasure that has its own historical path.

How did your family acquire the violin?

The violin has been in my family for over 50 years. It was bought with great difficulty for the concert violinist Evi Liivak [in 1962]. Her husband, Richard Anschuetz, loved her so much – and by extension, the violin – that after she died, he couldn’t bring himself to part with it. In 2008 [when Anschuetz passed], it needed a new caretaker.

Why loan it to Almond rather than sell it?

In no sense am I part of any high economic echelon, but still, the violin, with its family memories and almost 300 years of history, was too precious and personal to think of taking any of the many opportunities to sell it.

Was it important that the violin remain in Milwaukee?

I grew up in Milwaukee and love it for its musical and artistic culture, the people, the Oak Leaf Trail, the lake. The Milwaukee roots of the family come through an ancestor who became a brewery worker for Pabst and then helped to form the Local No. 9 Brewery Workers’ union, working towards achievements such as an eight-hour day. He eventually put himself through law school and became a lawyer as well as a judge in the clean, honest governments that Milwaukee became well-known for. My ancestor did his best to give Milwaukee better working and living conditions, while my gift is in the cultural sphere.

Why remain anonymous?

It isn’t in my nature to be a public figure. My responsibility to the worlds of music, history and culture was to match the violin with an excellent violinist, caretaker and public face. There’s an inner voice that always says this is the right way for me.

What was it like when you learned that the violin had been stolen?

Extremely painful. I’m very, very grateful to Chief [Ed] Flynn and to the many fine people at the MPD as well as the FBI. The MSO, the mayor, and the local and international music communities were also wonderfully supportive. All of those sources and organizations helped me to regain the courage for [the violin] to resume its life, although there is a lot of residual emotion that has not settled yet. To lock the violin up would be a kind of crime against music and culture.

Lastly, we asked what would become of the violin if, somehow, the relationship with Almond ended. “Speculation about the future I don’t find appropriate or desirable,” she responded, and cited a story about the Buddha, who compared pondering the afterlife, or lack of one, to questioning the design of an arrow one is struck with.

“I’ve played A Violin’s Life [an Almond album that’s sold well since the robbery] in the car for months,” she said, “to the point where I appreciate specific notes for the exact way they are played.” 

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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