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Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014

Before the 'Lipinski' Theft

Frank Almond’s inspiring chamber concert

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The shocking story of the armed robbery of the 1715 “Lipinski” Stradivari violin from Frank Almond on the cold night of January 27, after a Frankly Music concert at Wisconsin Lutheran College, has traveled around the world. This unjust and violent act is a horrendous violation of Almond as a person and musician. It is a violation of the anonymous owner’s rightful claim, an owner who lovingly loaned the violin specifically to Almond so that it could be heard here in Milwaukee.

The robbery is a violation, at least temporarily, of the violin’s continuing distinguished place in the public performance of music. Almond embraced this particular violin’s extraordinary history, playing and recording repertory originally associated with it, going back to the 18th century and the famous “Devil’s Trill” Sonata of Tartini. Hearing its rich tones has been a defining aspect of classical music in Milwaukee. As the violin’s audience, we are also violated by this robbery. My reaction is some combination of outrage and grief.

It should not be forgotten that there was an inspiring chamber music concert before this nightmare occurred. Joseph Johnson, former principal cellist of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, gave a soulful and masterful performance of Benjamin Britten’s Suite No. 3 for solo cello, marking the composer’s centenary. Pianist Christopher Taylor joined Almond for the Britten Suite for Violin and Piano, an early work. The Waltz movement was the highlight, a wild ride of extravagant excess uncharacteristic of this composer.

Taylor was astounding in excerpts from Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus. Clarinetist Todd Levy joined Almond, Johnson and Taylor in a powerful performance of Messiaen’s poignant Quartet for the End of Time, which was premiered at a World War II prison camp. The piece ends with a lengthy movement for violin and piano, with the violin playing a slow, contemplative, ethereal melody over ponderous piano chords. It is impossible now, in retrospect, not to hear this in my mind’s memory as some sort of elegy.  

The loss of the “Lipinski Strad” is enormous. It is time to state something obvious, however. Frank Almond will, of course, continue as the remarkable musician he is. Some years ago he played a different Stradivari violin on loan, and when the time came to give that up he moved on to a beautiful 17th-century Amati violin. His musical life, and ours as his audience, must go on.

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