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Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009

A Rare instrument

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Last spring Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, learned that a Stradivarius violin built in 1715, which some experts believed had disappeared, was in a bank vault in Milwaukee.The undisclosed owner offered Almond the opportunity to play it on long-term loan. “Strads,” made by Italian violinmaker Antonio Stradivari, are among the world’s most highly valued instruments. The “Lipinski Strad” that Almond plays—named after a famous player/owner Karol Lipinski (1790-1861)—is one of only about 250 surviving instruments in the world from Stradivari’s golden period. Almond performs with Frankly Music on Monday, Jan. 19, at Wisconsin Lutheran College.

You’ve been playing this violin a few months now. How has the adjustment been?

It’s an evolution for any string instrument. This violin had not been played much, if at all, in the last 15 years, and a violin must be played. The sound is much more settled than a few months ago. With a Strad everything has to be almost perfectly lined up or it gives you a lot of problems, not unlike a high-end race car. I’m still learning what it can do.

You have said it is the loudest violin you’ve ever played.

It’s certainly the most powerful instrument I’ve ever played. That affects the core of the sound at any volume. I have to be careful of balance with this violin when I’m playing in the orchestra or in chamber music, rather than as a soloist.

Do you ever think about the 300 years of musicians who played this violin before you?

Every day, but if I thought about it constantly, I’d go crazy trying to live up to the instrument’s impressive pedigree. After all, Tartini was the first known owner. On the other hand, it’s an inspiration.

Why have old violins increased so much in value?

There are a finite number of these rarefied instruments of historical importance, which are also great works of art. The upper echelon of old violins is similar to the art market. There was a huge shift upward in values in the 1980s, and another big increase in the last five years.

You have played several Strads in your career. How has it changed your playing?

A great instrument changes what you’re able to do. It’s as if you were a painter and someone gave you 500 more colors to work with. You learn how to use them. But if you’re not any good at painting, it’s not going to help you.

Does it bother you that you may only be playing this violin for a few years, until the owner decides to sell?

That’s the nature of it. We pass through the lives of these instruments. If you’re extremely lucky, as I have been, you get to play a violin like this for a time. Then another person gets the chance to play it, and another after that, and so on. That’s how it should be.