The last time Frankly Music assembled a tango-centric concert was five years ago — more than long enough to justify a return of the classic musical form. This time, the chamber music company will end its season with tango pieces from South America and Europe in Return of the Tango on May 16, a concert that also features the return of guest musician Stas Venglevski and his bayan.
The tango is best identified as a dance form, but Frankly Music artistic director Frank Almond says this concert will focus exclusively on the tango as a musical form. “The music of the tango has evolved out of a form of lower class entertainment,” he says. “The tango dance is something slightly different as it involves intricate dance steps and can be very difficult to grasp.”
Evolving in Argentina around the turn of the last century, tango music was born out of a melting pot culture of more than two million immigrants who would descend on Buenos Aires alone. It originated in the club scene in the late 1880s, with the first written pieces surfacing in the following decade. Early tango pieces would have likely been scored for flute, violin, and guitar, or played on a solo piano in brothels and cabarets.
The name that brought tango to the international stage was that of Astor Piazzolla. Born in Argentina in 1921, Piazzolla was the son of Italian immigrants. As a young child, Piazzolla listened to his father’s tango records, which slowly developed his fascination with the style.
Eventually, Piazzolla would train in Europe as a classical musician but would bring that training back to merge the two styles, creating the style of “nuevo tango.” “Piazzolla was a revolutionary during his time,” says Almond. “Even though he was slightly ashamed initially because of his early upbringing, he really brought the two styles together to create something unique and new.”
This concert will feature a wide variety of as-of-yet undetermined pieces from not only South America but also Europe. “People don’t always realize that, while a number of pieces come from Brazil and South America, there are also a significant portion of tango music compositions that came from European composers,” says Almond.
“This is a really special concert,” explained Almond. “It really exemplifies what I want to do with this concert series. We want to give a place where people can go and enjoy chamber music without feeling alienated. We want to educate without making people feel like they are being talked at. This concert represents the core of what Frankly Music is about.”
The concert will also feature Venglevski in a prominent role. The musician, now living in Milwaukee, is a native of the Republic of Moldova, in the former Soviet Union, and rose to prominence in the 1980s for his mastery of his signature instrument: the bayan, a Russian style of accordion. Venglevski is a frequent performer with Frankly Music and other local ensembles, and is well-suited for the evening of tango music.
Frankly Music will perform its Return of the Tango concert at 7 p.m. May 16, at Wisconsin Lutheran College, 8815 W. Wisconsin Ave., Wauwatosa. Tickets are $35, $10 for students, and can be ordered at franklymusic.org. For more information on Frank Almond or to purchase his new record, A Violin’s Life, Vol. 2: Music for the Lipinski Stradivari, visit frankalmond.com.
Frankly Music comes back with Bach — and Brahms too. The two legendary composers will be thrust into the spotlight by MSO concertmaster Frank Almond at this show, which features work created when they were at their respective peaks as artists. Don’t think that these composers’ age and distance from the present moment makes them any less than rockstars: Frankly Music’s last season opening show sold out and there’s no reason to suspect any different this time around.
At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 914 E. Knapp St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $30 online, $35 at the door and $10 for students. Visit franklymusic.org for more details.
7 p.m. Sept. 14
Frank Almond will wrap up the 10th anniversary season of Frankly Music with a pair of mesmerizing octets, considered some of the greatest in the canon. The works by Schubert and Mendelssohn will be performed by a collection of Almond’s colleagues, many from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, joined by violinist David Kim, the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. After a season of multiple triumphs and the terror of having the Lipinski Stradivarius stolen from him, Almond is sure to present a cathartic and powerful evening.
At Wisconsin Lutheran College, 8815 W. Wisconsin Ave., Wauwatosa. Tickets are $39, $10 for students. Go to franklymusic.org.
7 p.m. on Mon., May 12
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.”
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.
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.
Frankly Music, the revolving chamber group established by virtuoso violinist Frank Almond, is designed to “unstuff” the classics, making them more accessible to a wider audience.
The group opens its 10th season on Oct. 14 with a performance at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
“The idea for the series evolved from my own frustration regarding the protocols and traditions of the classical music ‘experience,’” Almond says. “I felt the whole thing was alienating and that there was a way for people to engage with this art form that was more meaningful without dumbing it down.”
“At its best, chamber music is like a really important conversation with the audience eavesdropping,” he explains. “I knew that if we could combine that (concept) with a decent party afterwards, it could resonate with people, whether or not they knew anything about classical music.”
Almond is more than well qualified to act as a classical music ambassador. With double degrees from the Juilliard School of Music, he served as concertmaster for both the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic. He holds the Charles and Marie Caestecker Concertmaster Chair with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and teaches at Northwestern University.
Almond performs on a 1715 Stradivari violin known as the Lipinski and named for its former owner – the Polish violinist Karol Lipinski. Almond’s “Portraits and Elegies” on the Innova label was the first recording on modern audio equipment using the famous instrument.
In order to bring the audience closer to the musicians, Frankly Music concerts are typically set in intimate venues. Introductory discussions precede what are generally exceptional performance from a revolving camp of guest artists. (Almond is the ensemble’s only resident performer.) A glass of wine with the musicians after the performance commonly caps the evening.
This season’s opening concert mixes both familiar and unfamiliar pieces under the theme “Flashback!” Mozart’s “Duo in G Major for Violin and Viola, K. 423” and his “Divertimento in E flat, K. 563” for string trio are joined by the “Duo for Violin and Cello” by the little-known Jewish composer Erwin Schulhoff. In addition to Almond, violist Toby Appel and cellist Edward Arron are scheduled to perform.
“The Mozart string trio is an undisputed masterpiece, even by Mozart’s own standards, and the only large-scale work he ever wrote for that combination,” Almond says. “It’s probably the first substantial work ever written for string trio and, at 40 minutes and six movements, requires spectacular virtuosity and stamina from all three players.”
The Mozart duo is also a strong work, one that gives the viola a prominent voice, Almond says.
But it’s Schulhoff’s composition, a relatively obscure work to concertgoers, that might be the performance’s most compelling attraction. A Czech composer strongly influenced by his countryman Leos Janácek, Schulhoff blends folk and contemporary elements with technical demands similar to those required in duos by Ravel and Kodály.
Schulhoff was a rising star in the 1930s, but his career was cut short by unwanted attention from the Third Reich. As both Jewish and an avowed communist, Schulhoff was sent in June 1941 to the Wülzburg concentration camp near Weissenburg, Bavaria, where he died of tuberculosis a year later.
“It’s gratifying to see his music rediscovered over the past 10 years or so,” Almond says.
Almond is excited about his co-performers for the season’s first concert. Arron, who also studied at Juilliard, has performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and serves on the faculty at New York University. Appel has performed with numerous chamber groups, including the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, as well as with jazz artists Chick Corea and Gary Burton.
“We don’t really do well with diva types, so the people playing have artistic sensibilities that naturally draw them to this sort of format,” Almond says. “We’ve had some huge names on the series because they like the concept and don’t get to do this very often.”
In addition to attracting top musicians, the informal format helps fulfill Almond’s goal of making classical music more accessible for Milwaukee audiences.
“Classical music isn’t a part of most people’s lives on a daily basis, but like all great art, it has a way of seeping into your soul once you get bitten,” he says. “I’m very happy that it seems to contribute something to the local arts community that is totally unique.”
Frankly Music opens its 10th season Oct. 14 at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee. For more information, visit www.franklymusic.org.