Frank Almond, the MSO’s Concertmaster, Has the World on a String

After 25 years as MSO’s concertmaster and a harrowing role in one of Milwaukee’s most famous crimes, Frank Almond is ready for what’s next.

PHOTOS BY ALIZA BARAN

Frank Almond has lived a remarkable life, rising quickly to stardom in classical music, becoming a champion of bringing fine music to new audiences and, in recent years, even raising his two daughters by himself as a widower.

But for six years now, one thing keeps the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster on the call list of reporters around the globe.

The heist.

The robbery of his near-priceless Stradivarius was the most famous episode of an already famous person’s life, and just when Almond thinks interest in the heist has died down, it flares up.

Vanity Fair published a feature story on it. A documentary about the theft, Plucked, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and played at the Milwaukee Film Festival in October. Almond has become a go-to source for stories about art thefts. In October 2018, he recorded a broadcast for “The Moth Radio Hour,” a weekly storytelling program heard by millions on Public Radio International.

“There is something inextricably connected with the violin and my own life, the orchestra and the city that keeps people interested,” says Almond. “The durability of the story has surprised me.”

That interest will no doubt continue as Almond, 56, moves to a new phase of his career. In June, at the end of the MSO’s current season, he will step away from the concertmaster (first-chair violin) position to be artistic advisor to the symphony, freeing him to pursue a variety of projects.

But first, again, a bit about the heist.


THE NIGHT OF JAN. 27, 2014, WAS FRIGID: 6 below zero with a wind chill of minus 25. Almond had finished a concert at Wisconsin Lutheran College, and as he left, the man who for months had stalked Almond, his wife and two young daughters was waiting for him. He stepped out of a minivan, Tased Almond to the ground, snatched the violin case and was driven off by an accomplice.

The target was the 300-year-old Lipiński Stradivarius built by Antonio Stradivari, the world’s most renowned violin maker, and estimated to be worth between $5 million and $6 million.

“I felt this unbelievable pain and paralysis,” Almond recalls. “Then I was running in circles, screaming, as I saw the van driving around the corner. It was like somebody had ripped off one of my arms.”

Almond managed to call 911. Five minutes later, in the back of a Milwaukee Police Department squad car, he faced the usual round of questions from the detectives. Name? Age? Residence? What happened?

As precious minutes ticked by, Almond tried to impress the urgency of the situation – find that van! – on the cops, who were polite and professional but had no idea what a Stradivarius was, much less its worth. The desperate Almond finally called an MSO administrator, who subsequently called a board member, who was friends with then-MPD Chief Edward Flynn. Within minutes, at 12:30 a.m., Flynn, a regular at MSO concerts and acquaintance of Almond’s, was talking to the detectives:

Flynn: “Sarge, Chief Flynn. Whaddya got?”

 

Detective: “I got a guy here, got Tased. Says somebody stole his violin.”

 

Flynn: “You don’t just have a guy, you have the fucking crime of the century on your hands! You need to call out the cavalry! This is a multi-million-dollar instrument. The world will know about this tomorrow!”

Recalls Flynn, now retired and living in Arlington, Virginia, “We had an equal chance that these were master criminals or a couple of characters who got lucky. We had to cover the base that somebody would try to spirit the violin to a foreign country. Either way, we had to get to the bottom, fast.”

And fast they did. The MPD, aided by the FBI’s Art Theft Program and Interpol, put on a full-court press conference. They recovered the case, which had a GPS tracking device in it, the next day, but it was empty. Thanks to some intense police work – 15 detectives, many working 18-hour days – the violin and two bows were recovered nine days later. The instrument was slightly scratched but otherwise in good condition, despite having been in a suitcase in an unheated attic.

“Most were homicide detectives, because those are the best people the force has,” Almond says. “They liked working on the case, because nobody had ever seen one like it, before or since. And nobody was dead!”

The thieves were not part of some international crime syndicate but, in Almond’s words, “knuckleheads” who didn’t know what they were doing. Turns out, each Taser shoots out dozens of tiny identification tags that look like confetti and are printed with a serial number. The FBI was able to track down the Milwaukee man who purchased the Taser, Universal Knowledge Allah, and ultimately the thief, Salah Salahadyn, also of Milwaukee.

Salahadyn is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence; Allah served three-and-a-half years and is now on three-and-a-half years of extended supervision. The driver of the van, LaToya Atlas, Salahadyn’s girlfriend and mother of three of his children, was arrested but not charged.

And Frank Almond is breathing easier, sort of. The thieves have been apprehended, tried, convicted and sentenced. News media are no longer camped out on his lawn or calling his cellphone.

“Armed robbery is traumatizing,” he says. “But once they were in prison, we felt safer.”

One concern shared by Almond and Flynn that did not come to pass: That the theft would become a racial flashpoint contrasting the “haves” – an elite East Side musician with a multi-million-dollar instrument – with the “have-nots” – two low-income African Americans trying to make ends meet.

Flynn said he was worried about criticism over the MPD resources devoted to the case, but, in general, that criticism did not gain traction. “No homicides that occurred during that period went uninvestigated,” he says. “Our investigation was important because that violin is part of the patrimony of Western civilization, and it is Milwaukee’s piece of it. We had an obligation to bring it home. The recovery was a feel-good story for the city.”

Almost as gratifying as the return of the Strad unharmed was the outpouring of support that came from around the world, especially from Milwaukeeans of all walks of life. “I had to make a victim statement in court,” Almond recalls. “People from many facets of this community – many of whom are having a really hard life – apologized to me. You could tell they thought this was an embarrassment to their community.”

Almond gives considerable credit to the detectives who worked the case. At a concert not long after the recovery, he brought them up on stage at Uihlein Hall to thank them publicly. They received the kind of thunderous applause usually reserved for visiting soloists.

On the one hand, Almond does not feel that the heist defines his career or his life. “It’s not like my career started in January 2014,” he says. On the other, he is not complaining about the notoriety of the theft. “If the fact that the violin got stolen gets people in the door to hear a concert or listen to a live broadcast or attend the chamber series, that’s fine with me,” he says. “Any exposure that drums up interest is better than nothing.”


What’s So Special About the Lipinski Stradivarius?

THE VIOLIN FRANK ALMOND plays was made in 1715 in Cremona, Italy, by Antonio Stradivari, considered one of the greatest – if not the greatest – luthiers (makers of stringed instruments) of all time. The instrument came into Almond’s life in 2008, when an anonymous, Milwaukee-based patron gave it to him on “permanent loan.”

The instrument has direct ties to musical greats Giuseppe Tartini, Edvard Grieg, Johannes Brahms, and Robert and Clara Schumann. It is considered a particularly fine example of the some 650 of Stradivari’s violins that survive (244 of which are accounted for). This violin is named for a previous owner, Karol Lipiński, a famous 19th century violinist, as famous then as his rival, Niccolò Paganini.

“The two would have contests where audiences would vote on which one played better,” Almond says. “It was like a 19th century violin smackdown.”

Almond says any violinist cannot just pick up a Strad and sound fantastic. “This violin allows me to play my best and yet reveals my glaring weaknesses,” he says. “It took me months to get used to what I could do.”

He adds: “This violin is over 300 years old. I’m just this little blip. I’m passing through its life, not the other way around.”

Frank Almond with his loaned Lipinski Stradivarius. Photo by Aliza Baran.

ALMOND’S BODY OF WORK began five decades before that 2014 shot from a Taser.

He was born in California, the son of musical parents – his father was an orchestra and chorus conductor at San Diego State University, and his mother a piano teacher. He has two brothers. “I’m the screwed-up middle child,” he says with a smile.

Frank Almond as a young violinist

He began studying the violin at age 5 with a Suzuki-method teacher. Almond insists he was no prodigy, but after nine months of laboriously squeaking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” things clicked and he suddenly started learning quickly. “I have to hand it to my mom,” he says. “Either she should get gold medals for listening to me all that time, or be institutionalized. Or both.”

By 15, he was concertmaster of Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute summer music training program, where guest conductors included Leonard Bernstein and Colin Davis. At 17, he was one of the youngest prizewinners in the history of the Paganini Competition in Genoa, Italy. He was admitted to the renowned Juilliard School in New York City at age 15 but did not go until two years later. “People thought I was nuts, but I knew I was too young to get dropped into that environment,” he recalls. Even at 17, he found it a narrow educational setting; he countered that by getting out and about in the city, making friends with many non-musicians.

After Juilliard, Almond “knocked around” New York as a soloist and chamber musician and was a guest concertmaster with several U.S. and European orchestras. At 22, he was one of two American prizewinners at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

In 1995, having just turned 30, he was named concertmaster of the MSO. The role involves much more than tuning up the players before a concert and playing a few solo passages during symphonic works. The concertmaster assists the music director by carrying out his instructions, supports guest soloists and coordinates the bowing of the string section. “The concertmaster is really the second conductor, the ringleader, if you will,” says Ken-David Masur, who began his tenure as MSO music director in fall 2019. “You cannot teach that kind of leadership, and Frank has it. He’s a natural.”

Some of that natural leadership flows from Almond’s laid-back demeanor. Tall, slender and boyishly handsome, he has a dry wit that suggests he’s not full of himself. He is relaxed. He lopes onstage, violin in hand, as if he’s walking into his home practice room. Yet when he sits down to play, it’s all business. “When you see him sitting in first chair in front of all the string players, you can just tell they’re gaining confidence from him,” says Tom Strini, former music critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen feels fortunate to be Almond’s colleague and stand partner (meaning they share a music stand during rehearsals and performances). “He has always made me feel appreciated and like an equal,” says Setapen, who was hired by the MSO right out of college 11 years ago. “He takes his job seriously, but he’s also a character – he likes to joke around and keep things light.”

Almond acknowledges that his work involves diplomacy and good people skills, a side of the job that cannot be taught. “I’m often in the firing line between the musicians, conductor and visiting soloist,” he says. “I have to set my own opinions aside and be diplomatic in working through differences.”

In addition to his leadership, Almond is widely acknowledged as one damn fine violinist. “Frank’s sound is lush and beautiful, not edgy or driving,” says Strini. “And no matter how hard the piece is, he makes it look easy. He just doesn’t sweat.”

Beyond the MSO, Almond is also deeply engaged in the community. He is the founder of the chamber music series Frankly Music, now in its 16th season. The series has been recognized nationally for its innovative programming and its ability to attract leading performers from around the world. It also showcases MSO principals.

The musicians at FM dress casually, attendees are encouraged to mingle with performers after the concert over refreshments, and Almond provides chatty introductions to the pieces about to be played.

This approach has generated loyal audiences. “He is very hamish,” – a Yiddish word for warm – says Eva Eiseman, a retired teacher of the deaf who lives on Milwaukee’s East Side and is a longtime Almond fan. “He’s not esoteric. He banters with the audience, and he speaks in a language I understand without having to look up words.”

Frank Almond has been the artist-in-residence with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra for six years. Photo courtesy of Ron Oshima.

Almond is also in his sixth year as artist-in-residence at the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, one of the largest youth arts programs in the U.S. There, he coaches students, conducts, offers master classes and participates in panel discussions about what it’s like to be a professional musician – working not just with advanced students but with beginners as well.

“He’s remarkably gentle with them,” says Linda Edelstein, MYSO executive director. “It’s unusual for someone of his stature to be an artist-in-residence at a youth orchestra.” Almond says he works with MYSO because of its diversity. “MYSO has students from many different socioeconomic backgrounds who are reflective of the city itself,” he says. “It’s important to me, in a city I love, not to work just with rich, white kids.”

Julianna Vogl, an MYSO violinist, had the privilege and pleasure of playing duets with Almond at a gathering of local arts donors. “I never thought I’d meet someone from the MSO, much less play with a guy like him!” says the 17-year-old junior at Calvary Baptist School in Menomonee Falls. “But he was fun to work with, very down to earth.”

All of this local involvement has not interfered with Almond’s international career as a soloist and guest concertmaster. His extensive recording discography includes a wide repertoire, garnering multiple Grammy nominations. He has taught at Roosevelt, Northwestern, San Diego State and Texas Christian universities.

Almond has a very good reputation among his colleagues nationally and internationally, says Laurie Niles, editor of violinist.com. “He’s a talented musician, of course, but he is so community-minded,” she says. “Not everyone can start a chamber music series. Not everyone can inspire young people the way he does at MYSO.”


JUST WHEN ALMOND’S life seemed on a more even keel a year after the heist, his wife, Kate, was diagnosed for the second time with breast cancer. Almond was a major caregiver, along with Kate’s family, but he met as many of his professional obligations as possible during that time. “It’s almost like playing was an escape,” he recalls. “And the outpouring and support network that popped up when things got difficult was touching for both of us.” 

That support network included many MSO musicians. “The whole orchestra rallied around him,” recalls Setapen, “especially when he had to cancel at the last minute.” First-chair clarinet Todd Levy, who has known Almond since they were at Juilliard together, says, “The orchestra is a big family, and we support each other, especially in times of hardship and difficulty.”

Music was an escape for Almond at home as well as in the concert hall, especially in her last weeks. He said his wife, who was not a musician, loved music and loved being around when he was practicing. “It gave me some comfort to know that I could go upstairs and escape and play, and if she heard it, it gave her something nobody else really could,” he recalls.

Kate was a community volunteer and “mompreneur,” having created a line of children’s underwear, Underdoodles. She died in October 2017. “Kate was a class act,” says Andy Nunemaker, MSO board chair and a neighbor of the Almonds. “She and their family were a solid part of the church, the neighborhood and the community.”

Frank Almond’s daughters at his alma mater, Juilliard School.

Almond is now a single father to Tessa and Gabrielle, 16 and 14. “I’m one of three brothers, and here I am raising two girls,” he says. “There is no handbook for that.” He pays close attention to them, has professionals involved when needed and looks for any red flags. He says the family is “plowing through it,” given that the girls lost their mother when they were only 13 and 11.

“My hope is in 10 years time, I won’t have screwed up anything more than the average parent,” he says.

Coping with two traumatic events in a short time turned upside down every element of his and the girls’ lives, which forced him to take a step back. “I had to think hard about what I wanted to do. I needed to prioritize. … Do I want to play Star Wars again, or would I rather do other good work artistically and be able to connect with the girls in a way I hope they’ll remember?” he asks rhetorically. “I’m not going to get that time back.”

Almond on the turf before the MSO’s 2016 national anthem and halftime performance at Lambeau Field. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kirn of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Last fall, the MSO announced that, after 25 years, Almond would conclude his tenure as concertmaster at the end of the 2019-20 season. He will continue as an artistic advisor – a position created for him – working closely with Maestro Masur and the orchestra. Almond says he and Masur purposely left the new role “ambiguous” to let him be as involved as he and they want.

Unburdened by the demanding orchestra schedule, Almond’s life will be more flexible but probably no less busy. While he is still shaping up the specifics, it is likely that Frankly Music will expand the number of its offerings. He hopes to expand his artist-in-residence role at MYSO. He is in the middle of creating a third A Violin’s Life album, with musical selections that chronicle the extraordinary history and lineage of the Lipiński Strad. He has already booked a half-dozen solo dates for next season.

Almond is also creating a new program called Bridges, an offshoot of Frankly Music that will bring music to people who cannot get to concert halls – for example, those in prisons or cancer wards. It is co-sponsored by Nō Studios, an event venue and collaborative workspace for artists. “We have the opportunity to be really nimble and to tailor programs to specific audiences,” he says.

The new stage in Almond’s tenure at MSO is one of many for the symphony right now. “We have a lot of younger players, a dynamic new music director and a new concert hall,” he says. “It has been amazing to me to play whatever role I did in all that.”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s April issue. 

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