Editor’s note: The interview of Frank Almond for this story by reporter Ricardo Torres was conducted last year before the Jan. 27, 2014, incident in which Almond was robbed of the 1715 Stradivarius violin following a concert at Wisconsin Lutheran College.
Frank Almond was relieved, according to news reports, when he received a call from Milwaukee Chief of Police Edward Flynn on Feb. 6, telling him they’d recovered the violin, and that three suspects were in custody.
This wasn’t just any violin. It was a 1715 Lipinski Stradivarius violin and it was stolen from him after a concert at Wisconsin Lutheran College on Jan. 27. While walking to his car after the concert, Almond was tasered while carrying the violin in a case.
The violin is worth millions of dollars.
For a man in love with music, the time away from his instrument was stressful.
Almond’s parents began taking him to violin lessons when he was 5 years old and he and his two siblings were exposed to a variety of musical instruments as they grew up.
“They started me on violin lessons, not necessarily because it would help me go into a profession, mostly because they thought it would be a good thing for all of their kids to do,” Almond said. “It was part of the general education.”
By the time he was in high school, he said, playing the violin “was still a mostly recreational activity but something I was really good at.”
Almond was baptized Catholic in San Diego, Calif., but admitted his household wasn’t strictly Catholic.
“My mother had a strong Catholic upbringing,” he said. “There was sort of an atmosphere of some sort of spirituality around most of what we were doing.”
In California he graduated from a public school a year early and spent that year practicing the violin.
At age 17, he was one of the youngest prizewinners in the history of the Nicolo Paganini Competition in Genoa, Italy.
“I wound up going to Juilliard (School), from there it sort of snowballed,” Almond said.
Juilliard School, located in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, is renowned for its performing arts. Almond admitted he felt pressured to perform.
“I don’t think you can be in an environment like that for more than a couple of months without being inspired or completely collapsing,” he said. “It goes from being a high end hobby to really being where you stand on a professional level.”
At age 22, he was one of two American prizewinners at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, documented in an award-winning PBS film.
After graduating in the early 1990s, Almond remained in New York as a soloist and chamber musician before becoming concertmaster of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and guest concertmaster of the London Philharmonic.
In 1995 he was offered a position at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as concertmaster.
“It was a real culture shock going from New York City to Milwaukee,” he said. “I’d kind of had enough of living in New York and I wanted to be in a place that had a different kind of focus and lifestyle.”
In addition to his work as a chamber musician, he has recorded music for several record labels. In 2002 and 2004, An die Musik, a New York City-based chamber group of which he’s been a member since 1997, received Grammy nominations for its Timeless Tales series.
Along the way, Almond got married in the Catholic Church and credits his wife, Katherine, for “rekindling” faith in his life.
“In certain ways we came from different worlds” he said. “It’s been nice to get back into that world, learn a little bit more about it.”
Almond said faith and music have much in common.
“If you’re a musician or artist, or brought up with that sort of world view, you’re constantly searching and broadening your horizons at different levels just to keep your creative juices flowing,” he said. “I spent the better part of the last 10-15 years looking at all kinds of faiths.”
Before coming to Milwaukee, he lived for a year in Holland and said he experienced a more “agnostic” culture. He’s performed in Israel and saw how dedicated they were to their faith.
In educating himself about music, Almond said he found a special relationship between faith and song. That relationship is what kept him in the church.
“The Catholic faith certainly has a long history of patronage to classical music and I think that’s a big part of it,” he said, adding Beethoven and Bach were “attached to their perspective faiths.”
Almond and his wife have two daughters who may follow in their father’s footsteps and have been “steeped” in music their whole lives.
“They really didn’t have a choice than to hear me practicing around the house,” he said. “One of them is making noises about playing the violin. We’ll see how that turns out.”
The Almonds chose Catholic education for their daughters, Tess and Gabrielle, ages 9 and 7.
“We decided, after looking at a number of different places, that St. Robert was the ideal place to put our two little girls,” he said, referring to the Shorewood school.
When the school asked him to play a concert in September 2012 to celebrate its 100th anniversary, Almond said yes.
“I don’t get involved with things I don’t care about,” he said, adding that the concert was very personal to him. “It’s one thing to play a benefit concert for the Milwaukee Symphony, but it’s another thing to play a concert and see my two girls in the audience.”
In April 2013, Almond released a solo album, “A Violin’s Life.” The money to make the album was raised through a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of $30,000. The project ended up raising $33,000.
The album was made with the Stradivarius violin.
Almond said people were “inspired for the right reasons” to help donate to this campaign.
The album was featured on Billboard’s Traditional Classical chart and ranked in the Top 10.
“I was just surprised,” Almond said. He added this was one of the first classical projects, funded through Kickstarter, that did really well.
“We weren’t looking to make a million dollars or anything,” he said.
Ironically, the publicity stemming from the theft of the violin has sparked an interest in Almond’s music as his concerts have sold out since he was reunited with the violin.