Happily reunited with the Lipinski Strad, violinist Frank Almond recounts his great adventure

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Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond plays the Lipinski Stradivarius violin at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, Wis. It was Almond’s first public performance since the 300-year-old, multi-million dollar violin was taken from him in an armed robbery following a performance on Jan. 2. The violin was recovered from the attic of a house in Milwaukee and two Milwaukee men are charged with party to robbery. -PHOTO: AP/Facebook

Given the volume of local and worldwide news coverage, you’re surely familiar with the Lipinski Stradivarius caper. In case you’re not: Thieves stunned violinist Frank Almond with a taser and stole the Strad (crafted in 1715) after a Frankly Music Concert on Jan. 27. Milwaukee police recovered the violin on Feb. 6. “I’m still trying to get my head around it,” Almond said, over lunch recently. “It’s so bizarre on so many levels.”

Frank being Frank, he’s looked for the upside in all this. For example, the episode has inspired an idea for a line of taser-proof concert clothes. “They would mainly be for conductors,” he said, with a straight face.

NOT ALL BAD

Almond’s dry wit has always been part of his appeal. He’s not very serious about himself, but he is serious indeed about music and about that violin, one of the best in the world, and about the business of music. Joking aside, the publicity surrounding the robbery isn’t all bad, and Almond sees that. Almond had been celebrating the Lipinski Strad and its history in recitals and with a CD, A Violin’s Life.

It happened that Almond, under his Frankly Music banner, had already booked A Violin’s Life program for Feb. 10 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center in Brookfield. That concert sold out when the news hit, and it’s fortunate that the Lipinski was back in Almond’s hands for that performance. The CD had sold well before the theft; now, Avie Records is after Almond and pianist William Wolfram to hustle up a long-discussed Volume II.

“I already had a lot of things flying around in terms of career expansion before all this,” Almond said. “This whole episode has, in a way, brought that more into focus. My manager in New York was already setting up A Violin’s Life recitals around the country for next season, in part because of my own restlessness and in part because of developments with the orchestra.”

He referred, of course, to the Milwaukee Symphony. Almond runs his Frankly Music series and plays as a soloist and chamber musician elsewhere, but his core job is serving as the MSO’s concertmaster. Just as the Strad was stolen, the orchestra’s future appeared shaky. Starting in late December, the MSO ran a six-week, $5 million emergency fund-raising campaign (coincidentally, $5 million is the insurance value of the Strad) to remain open until a reorganization plan could take effect next season.

Before the Feb. 15 Pops concert, MSO president Mark Niehaus announced that the campaign had succeeded. The publicity surrounding the violin surely helped that effort. “The theft brought attention to the violin and to the MSO,” Almond said. “The tremendous upside came in the way the community responded. It brought out the best in almost everyone. Total strangers sent hundreds of messages of sympathy and support. That helped my family and it helped me.”

DETECTIVE STORY

Law enforcement was also part of the community response. “Chief Flynn understood the meaning of this immediately and tackled it instantaneously,” Almond said. “That wouldn’t have happened in every city.” The two responding officers, understandably, had a bit of difficulty grasping what they were dealing with. “I was sitting in the back of a squad car, with the two taser barbs still stuck in my coat and the wires hanging off,” Almond said. “The officers were great, but it was like, ‘How do you spell Stradivarius?’ It was slightly comical, in a Coen Brothers sort of way.’” The thieves struck even though Almond was not alone in parking lot behind Wisconsin Lutheran College’s Schwan Hall that night. Pianist Christopher Taylor and clarinetist Todd Levy were nearby. They had all planned to go out for a post-concert drink.

“We walked out together,” Almond said. “I had to get something out of my trunk, and they went on to their cars. They were maybe 30 or 40 yards away when it happened. I made a lot of noise, but they didn’t pay attention until I yelled Todd’s name. I was hysterical, but I didn’t hit my head or anything. I was up in four or five seconds, in time to see the van drive away.”

Almond credits Levy, the MSO’s principal clarinetist, for a cool head and quick action.

“While I was in the squad car, Todd was on the phone to all the right people to get the ball rolling,” Almond said. Levy also stuck with Almond through dawn’s early light.

“I didn’t expect to be in an interrogation room for seven hours with a couple of homicide detectives,” he said.

Almond understood that investigators had to eliminate suspects, and that included him. He does not own the violin; it is on indefinite loan from an anonymous local owner. The police had to at least consider the possibility that he could have been involved. Taylor, Levy and cellist Joseph Johnson, who also played at the concert that night, were also vetted and cleared in that first 24 hours.

HAPPY ENDING

Almond, who also played the Dushkin Strad on loan for many years, has long been a student of high-end violin theft, as a preventive measure. Most thefts involve absent-minded musicians leaving an instrument behind or a snatch by petty criminals with no idea of what they’ve stolen. Almost all of them are eventually recovered. This case didn’t fit the pattern.

“So many elements just felt wrong and didn’t make sense,” Almond said. “They dumped the case (high-end cases often have concealed GPS trackers) but kept the bows, so they knew they were valuable, too. That made me think they might know what they’re doing. But why steal it? Basically, there is no market for stolen violins.”

Almond was in Florida to play long-planned MSO fundraisers there when he got the call from Chief Flynn that the Strad had been found. Everyone had been worried almost as much about damage as about loss. Almond was anxious to get back from Florida and pick it up.

“It was in good shape, both bows were there,” he said. “It sounded good, actually.” Almond said that he and the MSO had beefed up security, which was especially tight at the Wilson Center concert. “I tried to focus on the music and ignore the large number of firearms in the building,” he said.

He was joking again, but a little on the square.

“A lot of security stuff is going on, a lot that no one outside knows about,” he said. “But that’s not really my world. It’s an adjustment to think about these things more. It’s already enough of a challenge just to go out and play your best.

As news of the theft spread, violinists, dealers and other owners of fine violins flooded Almond with offers to lend or sell him instruments. He’s glad he got to turn them all down when the Lipinski was recovered.

“Finding a violin to play would not be a problem,” he said. “But I like playing this one.”

For more of Tom Strini’s reviews and insights into Milwaukee’s cultural scene, visit striniwritesblogspot.com.