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non divisi
Frank Almond writes a column instead of practicing
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Exactly a year ago at this time I’d been asleep for about two hours and was awakened by a phone call from the Milwaukee Police Department, who had somehow found my violin case by the side of the road tasein the snow. It was empty. An hour after that, I stared out the window and watched various local media go up and down the street ringing doorbells trying to figure out which house was mine. Things got weirder from there. And weirder.

I felt I should post something today, however short. By now most everyone’s heard it all, so I won’t recap. If you somehow don’t know what I’m talking about, read this.

I continue to thank the various law-enforcement agencies for their exceptional work and cooperation, but I also wanted to reiterate my gratitude to those of you who helped out in one way or another, whether friends or total strangers. There were a lot of people who just did the right thing in their own way over the last year, and it made a huge difference.

stradivarius_caseThe violin turns 300 in 2015, and I’m glad we both made it this far. If anyone reading this happens to be nearby, come to our birthday celebration in a few weeks, a concert which will be held literally at the scene of the crime.

I’m told by the FBI that this case is truly unprecedented in virtually every way. I hope there’s never another one like it.

photo courtesy

2 months ago | |
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When I was 9 or 10 I was still taking Suzuki lessons and attending the group sessions every Monday night at San Diego State University, which had one of the first (and most successful) Suzuki programs ever established in the United States. Spoiler- this isn’t an essay about that crazy guy who hates Suzuki people. Anyway, there was this little girl in our class named Mika. She always came with her mom, an impeccably polite and delicate Japanese woman married to a university professor. I still remember Mika because she played really well at about the age of 6 or so, like prodigy material. One week she didn’t show up.

Turns out Mika’s mom came home one night and found her husband in the closed garage with the car running. She and Mika moved away shortly after that, and I never saw them again. This was my first direct proximity to suicide, and unfortunately not the last. I thought of Mika again last week when I heard about José Feghali’s tragic death.

JFI played as concertmaster of the Ft. Worth Symphony/Ch. orchestra from 1992-95 and taught at Texas Christian University during that period. José played several times with both orchestras, and our paths often crossed over the years both before and after my time there. I’d known of José since 1985, when he won the Cliburn and Barry Douglas won the silver. The following year Barry won the Tchaikovsky Competition; I was also lucky enough to get a prize there, along with William Wolfram and David Kim (part of the small American contingent that year). I remember a lot of talk that summer about the Cliburn and José, and the pros and cons of winning something like the Cliburn, which even at that time had a very mixed history regarding the career durability of its top prizewinners. It’s important to keep in mind that this was still an era in which top competitions had a fair amount of career gravity- a Gold at the Cliburn (or Tchaikovsky) generated an tremendous amount of attention, and the winner essentially had about three seasons of maybe 150 major dates lined up before the next contestants would cycle in and the focus would shift to them. So there was often a sort of countdown for anyone that won a top prize; I remember thinking at the time that not everyone seemed to realize what was coming when the competition ended.

I didn’t know José personally at that point, but over the next 7 or 8 seasons after his Cliburn win, to me he appeared to be doing remarkably well for someone thrown into that sort of world. I’d see the occasional peaks and valleys in the press regarding his playing, career trajectory, etc. but that didn’t seem unusual. Imagine being in your 20s and going from 30 scattered dates a year (or so) to playing every major hall in the country the following season. No genuine artist is going to be at the top of their game every night under those circumstances- that’s one of many reasons nobody takes competitions all that seriously anymore. But maybe that’s for another column……

By the time I met him in 1992, he still seemed to be playing a fair amount; maybe not the biggest dates in the world, but certainly he was sustaining a viable career as a soloist. We’d occasionally share the stage, and I often heard him from the audience- he was a serious pianist, full of commitment, expression, and virtuosity. We weren’t close friends, but I thoroughly enjoyed his warm and gracious character in our limited personal interactions. I saw him less frequently after 1995 but was very much aware of his growing reputation as a teacher and mentor. In the past few years I’d heard rumors of some personal and emotional  struggles but attributed that to typical professional gossip. Turns out it wasn’t, as this thoughtful essay from Jim Denton explains (thanks to Norman LeBrecht for this post).

Over the years I’ve had my own experiences with the debilitating and sometimes paralyzing effects of clinical depression. Even with that sort of insight, nothing ever prepares you for this sort of tragedy. I have very fond memories of him as a person and artist, and send my deepest condolences to his colleagues and family.

3 months ago | |
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I think that’s the longest I’ve ever gone without posting, but to be honest with all the violin stuff winding down and everything else going on, I really didn’t feel like writing much. So just in time for the holiday season……

Guess I’ll start out with some random stuff, like a new addition to the orchestral fines page:

– Shooting the concertmaster with a Taser and stealing a violin you can’t do anything with:

7 years in prison, followed by 5 years of extended supervision, plus restitution determined by the court. 

And in case you missed it, this is still the best piece so far on the whole saga. There’s a reason he won a Pulitzer. OK, quick post for now, just to get back into it. I’ll start up again regularly over the holidays, so please stay tuned.

And here’s a cat video, just in case your Monday is starting out slow.

More soon……

3 months ago | |
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Sorry to be absent for so long, but it’s been a crazy few months since the last post. As the legal process grinds on, I’m happy to report that the case is moving along, with one guilty plea and another expected later in July; both are facing 15 years. In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to respond here to some of the most frequent questions that keep coming up.

You must be thrilled that everything ended up so great and you can get on with your life. What’s taking so long with the case?

Things are nowhere near finished, and won’t be until after both are sentenced and (presumably) put away for an appropriate amount of time. Although it may seem like it’s taking forever with such a mountain of evidence and (hopefully) obvious outcome, I’m told that this process has actually moved forward faster than the norm, certainly more rapidly than if it were in Federal court. And in the meantime both suspects are still out on bail, and my life is very different.

What were they thinking they would do with it after it was stolen?

I have no idea. Among many other things this case illustrated is the fact that there is no “underground market” for Stradivaris. You can’t just fence them, and the majority are extremely well-documented and instantly identifiable. If you steal a high-end instrument, the overwhelming odds are that you’ll get caught and it’ll be found sooner or later.

At least you got everything back in good condition, right?

I got everything back in playable condition. The violin did have a few bumps and bruises, as did the bows. That’s a miracle considering they were all left in an attic (in a suitcase) for 9 days in often sub-zero temperatures. Properly handling something like a Strad was not a high priority after its theft.

What’s it like to get Tasered?

Not fun. Unless your idea of fun is about 50,000 volts when it’s -7 degrees outside. It’s very painful, and certainly an effective way to incapacitate someone (especially for police that have been properly trained to use it), but there have also been numerous reports of injuries and/or death associated with Tasers. They are illegal in several states (for civilians), and many cities and counties have strict guidelines on their possession and use. There’s a lot of info (or links to info) on the Wiki page here

So this wasn’t an insurance scam, or PR stunt for the Milwaukee Symphony?

I’ve actually had people ask me these questions directly, sometimes in person. And unsurprisingly the online trolls went crazy, especially in early February. So for you conspiracy theorists (and former oboists) who publicly accused the owner and myself of insurance fraud (or worse), I look forward to a robust discussion if we ever happen to meet in person, or maybe an apology. I admit that one of my favorite moments was back in March, towards the end of a post-concert conversation I was having with a musician from another orchestra; he declared this event my “Nancy Kerrigan moment”. That analogy never really occurred to me, and I’m still not sure exactly what he meant.

For the other 98% of you who sent me nothing but messages of encouragement and support, thank you again. And I continue to be grateful for the ongoing efforts and awareness from the Milwaukee Police Department, the Milwaukee County District Attorney, musicians and staff of the Milwaukee Symphony, and the FBI. I look forward to moving on from this, and even posting something about another subject.

Messaien evidence

Note: This is what happens when they dust your music for fingerprints.

8 months ago | |
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Many of you have sent me personal messages, email, cards, flowers, and so many other good wishes. I want to express my gratitude for that; the avalanche of goodwill has been really heartening during a difficult time.

The owner of the Lipinski violin has requested I post the following statement here. It is below, unedited in its entirety.

Due to my devastation at the attack on you, Frank, and the theft of the violin, I feel compelled to write this. First, I’m so happy that you are safe. I speak to your many friends, whose responses to this event have been so touching. It has been my joy and privilege to own the Lipinski Stradivari in recent years. I have thought of myself more as a guardian of a treasure than an owner, a treasure that needs to be seen and heard. It has been in my family for over five decades, deeply loved and used in performance across the world. As a non-violinist, non-public figure, it has felt more natural to me to remain relatively anonymous. Not expecting the violin to participate in this tendency, I had the good fortune to find Frank to take loving care of it every day and to use his musicality and virtuosity to express his vision with its glorious voice. That he was concertmaster of the MSO was especially appropriate, as another goal was to give Milwaukee the gift of being able to hear the violin frequently. He has also acted as its human face and voice, giving interviews exploring his thoughts and feelings on getting to know this violin. He has put remarkable effort, talent and enthusiasm into making the first modern recordings of the Lipinski. It was a joy for me to feel so welcomed by Frank to write some of the historical essays for the website of “A Violin’s Life.” All this he has done in exemplary, energetic fashion and for all of it I am grateful. I am even more grateful that his terrible experience on the night of Jan. 27 did not result in permanent injury. I had left the concert hall just a few minutes earlier and thinking of what then happened so quickly is very painful.

As a child overhearing long, expert practice sessions on the Lipinski, I didn’t realize that it was exceptional. To me, that was just how violins sounded. Understanding its capabilities came later: the pure, strong voice, clear, light and dancing, dark, brooding, poignant, tender, ebullient, expressing any emotion the player was feeling. Its loss is devastating.

Perhaps it’s appropriate to say also that I’m not part of any upper echelon, musical or other, just a person who loved her family violin with all its memories and three hundred years of history more than the many opportunities to sell it. My heart is broken.

I am very grateful for all the help given by the Milwaukee Police and other law enforcement organizations, the MSO, and those who are offering the reward. If anyone knows anything and can help, I appeal to them to come forward.

Frank, I could never have guessed that after all you have done, you would be physically attacked. I’m so sorry.



1 year ago | |
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January 31, 2014

Reward to be offered for Stolen Lipinski Stradivarius

$100,000 reward offered for information leading to the safe return of the violin 

MILWAUKEE (January 31, 2014) – The Milwaukee Police Department continues to investigate the theft of the 1715 Stradivarius violin, which occurred on Monday, January 27, 2014, around 10:20 PM during an armed robbery of Frank Almond following a concert at the Wisconsin Lutheran College. A $100,000 reward will be offered to anyone who can provide information which results in the safe return of the stolen Lipinski Stradivarius.

Tips or leads can be directed to the Milwaukee Police Department at (414) 935-7360, or to the MSO at (414) 226-7838.

“The MSO family would like to express our gratitude for the outpouring of support we, and our concertmaster Frank Almond, have received following an armed robbery in which the Lipinski Stradivarius was stolen,” said Mark Niehaus, president and executive director of the MSO. “We are hopeful that this reward will aid in the recovery of this priceless treasure so that it may be enjoyed by Milwaukee’s cultural community and the international arts world for years to come.”

“As the Milwaukee Police Department continues its expansive investigation into this crime, we welcome the assistance that the reward announced today is sure to provide,” Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said.

The Lipinski Stradivarius has been on indefinite loan to Almond from an anonymous owner, and was secured according to industry standard at the time of the robbery.

Further information regarding this investigation will be announced as it becomes available.


Ranked among the top orchestras in the country, the MSO is the largest cultural institution in Wisconsin. Since its inception in 1959, the orchestra has received critical acclaim for artistic excellence. The orchestra’s full-time professional musicians perform more than 135 concerts each season. A cornerstone organization in Milwaukee’s arts community, the MSO provides enrichment and education activities for audiences of every age, economic status, and background.



1 year ago | |
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Anyone with information about the whereabouts of the “Lipinski” Stradivarius violin following the robbery on 1/27/2014 should call Milwaukee police at 414-935-7360 or the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at 414-226-7838.  A reward offer is pending and information will be made available once confirmed. details
1 year ago | |
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Wishing everyone a happy holiday (whichever one), and a special personal thanks to everyone who’s responded to the MSO’s recent campaign to save the orchestra. The response has been tremendous, about $1.5 million in a few weeks, so hopefully that sends a somewhat different message than usual.

imagesIf you’re tired of all that, click on the Santa Tracker, courtesy of NORAD. Always fun to see where he is, and which color. All the best for a happy and healthy 2014!

1 year ago | |
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In 2001 the artist David Hockney startled the art world by theorizing that advances in realism and accuracy in paintings of many Old Masters such as Ingres, Jan van Eyck, Caravaggio, and Vermeer were not just the result of the artists’ technique and creativity, but also involved the common use of optical devices such as camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors to enhance their perspective. I immediately thought of the slippery slope of cognitive perception after reading the latest post from the noted blogger Emily Hogstad, who has been deservedly acclaimed for her detailed and comprehensive revelations relating to the Minnesota Orchestra debacle.  Suffice to say her latest article created a different kind of buzz. 

C.OMany in the social media crowd have been quick to condemn her for perceived disparaging remarks directed at the musicians of the Chicago Symphony (who have shown unwavering support for the MN Orchestra musicians and have often employed them during the lockout), as well as the audience itself, described in the piece as “completely noncommittal”. After what was an undoubtedly spectacular performance by James Ehnes and the CSO (which she recounts in somewhat hyperventilating terms), she left at intermission, skipping Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. I was surprised at the general tone of the article, which (to me) has a certain snark and preachiness about it, no doubt unintentionally. And it highlights in no uncertain terms the dangers of looking out of one tiny window, orchestrally speaking.

But the piece is quite heartfelt and raises important points, many of which are part of the robust discourse happening at so many levels now in the business. The fact is that to some degree the antiquated, abstract, and almost totally foreign protocols of the traditional orchestral experience do turn off a lot of patrons. Some orchestras do look bored and distracted the whole time (and some sound like it). And as we are now experiencing, some great orchestras are simply taken for granted by their own communities and donor base until it’s (nearly) too late.

Even if that show happened to be an off night (I wasn’t there), her comments about the CSO musicians and audience seem to me unfair and misguided, presumably a result of Ms. Hogstad’s current inability to disconnect from recent concert experiences in Minnesota, which must be quite emotional these days. Good thing she wasn’t in New York to experience the frequent “walking ovation” displayed by a good portion of the audience at some of the city’s most esteemed institutions.

Ms. Hogstad is an incredibly gifted and knowledgeable writer and is obviously passionate about music and musicians. She raises some important questions towards the end of the article; I’d humbly suggest a few more road trips might point a way to some answers. Perspective is everything, especially broadening it.

If Song of the Lark is new to you, dive right in here. For this week’s mind-bending MOA news, click here.


photo credit: Sigfrid Lundberg via photopin cc

1 year ago | |
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Every few months or so there seems to be yet another article discussing various perspectives regarding women on the podium. I noticed a distinct uptick after the finale of the Proms, at which the eminent Marin Alsop appeared (finally). From the ridiculous to the well-reasoned, female conductors are a hot topic these days.

656-female-symbol-2-clip-artYou may wonder what angle could possibly be missing from the avalanche of words spilled (and sometimes wasted) on what is rapidly becoming a tiresome dialogue (to me, anyway). Here’s a little secret, at least in my experience: nobody cares. That is to say, truly gifted conductors are in such short supply these days that most orchestras wouldn’t care if you are male, female, or some combination as long as you possess that intangible and complex set of skills that both inspires and challenges a large group of musicians to play their best on a regular basis without growing to despise you in the process. And even if that happens, they’ll still be happy about some great concerts.

The thing is, you can’t teach this stuff, kind of like having a great business vision, mastering creative bike tricks, or becoming a great quarterback. There’s a certain alchemy to conducting, along with the aforementioned exceptional artistic qualities, and you don’t get that in “school”. Further, conductors’ engagements and early career development are often determined by word of mouth between artistic administrators and managers, many of whom (not all) have less than comprehensive knowledge with regard to conducting ability and potential. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve seen a 20 or 30-something “rising star” (male or female) who was clearly in over their head within the first 30 minutes, sometimes embarrassingly so. In my experience with very rare exceptions, from the musicians’ standpoint gender is almost an afterthought, given the current scarcity of conducting talent with real promise and durability. Perhaps every orchestra has its share of traditionalists and/or bigots, and orchestral musicians are notorious for having wildly diverging evaluations of the same conductor or concert. But it does seem as if general attitudes are more inclusive these days.

I am not at all dismissing the unique obstacles for any woman attempting to develop a conducting career. As some recent articles have noted, extra scrutiny, ingrained stereotyping, the relative “maleness” of the conducting profession, etc. are all factors to one degree or another. And these are obviously more pronounced in certain cultures and orchestras (say, the Vienna Philharmonic, for example. Or the entire country of Russia, if you believe some of what you read). batonBut what about the numbers themselves? Countless young males imagine they can slog through a conducting program and instantly be taken very seriously, no matter what their abilities (and sometimes they do sustain an over-hyped career for a few seasons). Far less women embark on this path (except maybe in Finland), so proportionally alone the odds are against them. In other words, there are huge numbers of mediocre male conductors, so why would the talent level be automatically higher with a much smaller talent pool of women? Beyond the hype and sometimes counterproductive marketing of conductors (which often perpetuate negative stereotypes), it seems to me that a truly gifted conductor who happens to be a women may enjoy a huge advantage simply by virtue of those two elements alone.

The relative scarcity of women conductors is a complex topic, and this is obviously a singular perspective after 25 years of sitting very close to the podium (and more recently, occasionally standing on it). One of the great joys of playing in an orchestra is having either a guest conductor or Music Director that truly leads, inspires, shows professional respect, knows the scores in detail, doesn’t waste time, and allows you to both play your best and push the boundaries artistically. Admittedly a tall order, and such a rare event that when it does take place, matters of gender, race, or anything else just don’t matter to me. I could be mistaken, but based my own totally unscientific surveys of some colleagues, I don’t think my attitude is unique. Still, I’ll consider it real progress when the issues of quality dominate the narrative and evaluation of any conductor, and gender truly becomes irrelevant on a broader scale. I look forward to that.

1 year ago | |
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