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non divisi
Frank Almond writes a column instead of practicing
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I love writing for nondivisi and have cherished the opportunity to do so, however sporadic the content and quality have been. But with a heavy heart I must inform you that nondivisi is now on indefinite hiatus, due to a serious illness within my immediate family.

questionsI’ve started and abandoned various articles for this blog over the last few months as my life situation became more chaotic and confusing. Perhaps some of you have been faced with the possible loss of a spouse or child due to some situation you never expected to confront. And you would know the indescribable pain and emotional distress that can quickly drain you, even under the best of circumstances.

At the moment I have no choice but to prioritize as best I can, minimizing both my musical and extramusical pursuits to the extent possible.

Many thanks to all of you that have offered poignant messages of support and hope, and I look forward to reviving nondivisi as soon as possible.

Thank you all, and I hope to be back here writing very soon-


1 year ago |
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Many people know I’m extremely fortunate to play on an incredible violin that’s gained even more notoriety over the past couple of years. One of the numerous challenges after it was stolen was to try and pick up where I left off artistically and otherwise, which in reality ended up being much more difficult than I’d anticipated. In any case, I’m happy to announce that tomorrow (May 6)  A Violin’s Life, Vol. 2 will be officially released, after a long and winding road.

I had always hoped that A Violin’s Life would eventually be a multi-volume project, but also understood that would depend on a number of factors. The 2013 release was received with much enthusiasm, certainly far more than I’d anticipated; I immediately began thinking of repertory for Volume 2, and perhaps even beyond.

The events of January 2014 simultaneously curtailed and accelerated those plans. As my life turned upside down within a few hours, it was difficult to imagine ever even seeing the Lipinski again, let alone playing it. Miraculously, ten days later it was back in my hands, relatively unscathed.

Amid a media frenzy and lots of new security protocols, I was determined to finish what had already looked to be a busy season, but was so physically and psychologically exhausted that another recording project was out of the question. A few months later I’d planned it all out, but as usual there were a lot of moving parts to the puzzle, and I was still navigating the legal issues  related to the theft until February 2015. Nevertheless, I was stubbornly resolute that we’d do another volume (hopefully during the 300th anniversary season), then maybe send signed copies to two guys in prison.

Violins-Life-Vol-2-1-MB-250x250-1The Violin Sonata of Amanda Maier-Röntgen was a revelatory discovery in my research back in 2013, and it is immensely satisfying to include it on this recording. Further, I’m thrilled that the illustrious and much-admired Emily Hogstad contributed this wonderful essay on a composer who lingers in unjust obscurity.

The composer Eduard Tubin came to Amanda Maier-Röntgen’s native Sweden as a refugee, fleeing the various invasions of his native Estonia in 1944. The powerful solo sonata dates from 1962; his works were often programmed by the Estonian violinist Evi Liivak, who played on the Lipinski from 1962 until her retirement in the late 1980s. As musician members of the Estonian diaspora created by the war, they were surely acquainted. We’ve managed to include a compelling article on this prolific and fascinating composer, also inexplicably remaining on the periphery of mainstream repertory despite the efforts of the eminent Neeme Järvi, who has boldly championed Tubin’s symphonies (all 10 of them).

Beethoven’s iconic Kreutzer sonata speaks for itself, in all its fantastic glory. Back in 2013 I discovered that Karol Lipinski included it during some concerts in Dresden in 1840 playing this violin; Franz Liszt was the pianist.

So here it is, hopefully some kind of tribute to the survival of great music played on a great work of art, even amid events no one could have possibly imagined back when I started this endeavor in 2012. I am of course quite relieved to be alive and still playing this superb violin, and my gratitude has only increased throughout the challenges and triumphs of the past two years. Many thanks again to all that have continued their unwavering support and enthusiasm for my various activities, including this latest project.

Happy listening……

2 years ago |
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In 1979 I was 15 years old and not sure I wanted to play the violin anymore; I was in my hometown of San Diego coming off a hiatus of about a year or so. The only reason I was hanging in was because I’d just started with a new teacher who somehow intuitively knew that what I really needed was some quality guidance and a highly structured practice regimen. And maybe a summer of hard work. My mom drove me to the local auditions for BU’s Tanglewood Institute, but I had no idea how that summer would change my life.

This was 8 weeks of new friends and experiences, but most of all a total immersion into a new world of music. For better or worse, I wound up as concertmaster of the BUTI orchestra, learning as much as I could not only from my colleagues and Victor Yampolsky (our regular conductor), but also from the numerous guest conductors, including Colin Davis and Leonard Bernstein.

But it was Joseph Silverstein who really captured my attention on a regular basis. I was fortunate enough to play in one of his master classes, took a few lessons, and saw him play as much as I could that entire summer. He was a brilliant artist and human being of stunning depth; it seemed as if he could do anything- a great soloist, chamber musician, and pedagogue all rolled together. His broad musicality and ferocious intellect were something to behold, and I began to seriously think about what “being a musician” really meant. Thanks to his inspiration that summer, a whole new world of possibilities seemed to open up. I went back to San Diego and tested out of my ridiculous public high school that December. And I started practicing (a lot) and often had bi-weekly lessons. Things changed quickly.

JSreh.I returned to Tanglewood the following summer as well; over the next 30 years our paths occasionally crossed, and I continued to marvel at his musical and intellectual scope, along with the sheer diversity of his activities. To me he’d redefined the definition of “concertmaster”, and in the process inspired a generation of violinists. In 2007 I had the good fortune to be the soloist for his guest week at the Milwaukee Symphony, performing the Bernstein Serenade, a piece he’d no doubt performed dozens of times. Although slightly intimidated, I certainly couldn’t have asked for a more informed collaborator for those concerts. I took him to lunch one day, and as usual he was full of wonderful anecdotes and insights on practically any topic; he was in his 70s, and practically a walking encyclopedia. At one point we discussed the gargantuan changes in the music business since we’d met in 1979 (this included him jokingly chiding me for not playing the second half of the program just because I was the soloist, reminding me that was not the policy at the BSO when he was there). Towards the end of our meal I sincerely thanked him for mentoring me in many ways over a few decades, even if he hadn’t realized it. He laughed and (as I recall) told me to go practice a little before the concert.

DSC00300.JPGHis death this weekend no doubt has many people reflecting on their shared artistic experiences thoughout his long and varied career. To me he was a singular figure at a critical point in my teenage years, artistically and otherwise. I consider myself blessed to have shared the stage with him a few times in my life, but more importantly to have learned so much from him beyond the music, over a period of several decades. Of course he was one of the world’s great violinists. But he always seemed to be driven by excellence and integrity both as an artist and a human being- to me, an example of what a musician should be. I’ll miss him.

2 years ago |
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I first met Christopher Ling around 1994, a few years after he’d relocated to Beaumont, TX from Manchester, UK (!) and was thinking about starting a management company for classical musicians. I can’t remember exactly how our paths crossed, but I was working a lot with the Ft. Worth Symphony at the time as concertmaster, often back and forth from NYC. That universe was small, and somehow we ended up on the phone one day. I would’ve never imagined the horrific conclusion.

con-man4I could immediately sense that something about Chris didn’t quite add up; he was a monumental character even over the phone, simultaneously thoroughly charming and utterly consumed by his own arrogance, sitting in Beaumont. He was also clearly highly intelligent, with a broad knowledge of not only the classical music business (at the time) but also an almost encyclopedic mastery of most elements of playing, teaching, or performing on the violin. Shortly after our initial conversations he informed me he and his wife would be moving to LA to get his company up and running.

I happily joined his roster; I’d had my experiences with a few horrible managers up to that point, and was content to have someone even nominally competent to handle the various solo dates I was getting on my own. And to hear Chris pontificate, he was about to burn up the classical world from Beverly Hills. However, the dates he developed were few, and over the next two years or so I was unsurprised to find myself playing mostly in places I’d never heard of for very little money, often with conductors from his roster (some of whom were quite talented). Once in awhile I’d have an honest discourse about CHL Artists with someone else on the roster. Musicians often complain about their managers in some form, but it was clear that I wasn’t the only person who had some pretty serious concerns about all the haze surrounding Chris, his history, and his enterprise. Why had he moved from England to the US to get into such a crazy business? Was this all just a reboot of his life (as he claimed)? Was the management essentially a vehicle for his wife’s career (a gifted violinist and former student of his)?

No one had any convincing answers, especially Chris. I saw him in person perhaps a grand total of three times over a few years, each instance quite enjoyable and often fueled by his eagerness to impress on some level. I do remember on one occasion he mentioned some sort of “legal issue” regarding his escape to the US, and I naively concluded he just was running from some personal problem or quandary. Little did any of us know.

I drew my own conclusions after one too many unscrupulous moves (even for a manager). I later learned from various presenters that he’d usually say I was simply unavailable most of the time, but his wife was. So I left (cordially) but I never saw or spoke with him again after about 2000 or so. Along with the tectonic changes in the classical business overall, CHL seemed to become a sort of asterisk in industry circles, despite the fact that he often had some phenomenally gifted musicians on the roster (at least for a little while). But eventually it seemed few in the classical world really wanted to deal with his “charm” anymore, if that’s the correct word. He began to represent actors/actresses/film composers as well. Somehow CHL stayed afloat, prospering enough that his lifestyle didn’t seem to suffer much.

Then this happened. And although I could hardly believe it, the pieces suddenly came together. I figured it was only a matter of time until he’d have to face up to his past. The Chetham’s investigation dragged on, and when the events of 2014 consumed me to some degree, I just forgot about him. Until last week, when this happened

A fitting end, I suppose. And predictable in retrospect, but no less shocking. Such a pity that his accusers will never genuinely have their day in court, with him to face them. My condolences to his family- I hope they and his other victims eventually move past this horrendous saga.

Image credit: techteachengage

2 years ago |
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Like everyone else, I was amazed to read about the recovery of the Ames Stradivarius last week, and the poignant reflections from Roman Totenberg’s daughter Nina, the noted journalist. For me the story had a certain obvious resonance; I remembered the surreal feeling when I received a phone call informing me the Lipinski Strad had been found only nine days after my ordeal began. Imagine waiting 35 years, and finding out the culprit was some nitwit you suspected all along. And that the violin just sat there in a locked case for 4 years after the nitwit’s death until someone decided to take a closer look. 

After reading some of the truly sub-literate comments on that NPR page, I thought it might be worthwhile to address certain myths that seem to surface periodically regarding the theft (and recovery) of high-end stringed instruments. Before my own saga, I felt I was fairly well-informed in this area, and considered it due diligence to keep current on the subject. But I’ve also been lucky enough to have the assistance of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, and my knowledge base has broadened considerably. Happily, it turns out that some of the same crowd from my case assisted with the Ames recovery, and I’m sure the Totenbergs are as grateful as I was.

Ames Certificate (courtesy NPR/Totenberg family)

This theft took place in 1980, well before the Art Crime Team or today’s instant mass communication. Even in previous decades, it was still pretty rare to hear about a Strad that disappeared, although if one was stolen deliberately it would often be gone for quite awhile. The internet changed all that, which is a major reason that nowadays these instruments are rarely stolen intentionally. The other reason (obviously related) is that if you do steal one (intentionally or not), there’s literally no market for it. Further, they aren’t “stolen to order”; there’s no Dr. Evil sitting someplace with a fluffy cat in his lap wondering how he can steal the next Stradivarius for his personal use. To my knowledge that’s never happened, and there is no evidence to support that concept.

What typically happens is that these instruments disappear accidentally or almost randomly (or are stolen the same way). Someone leaves it in a taxi, or looks away for a moment in a train station, or steals it off a porch (remember this?). Whoever happens to find it (or take it) either has a huge problem because everyone’s looking for it, or they figure it out and turn it in (or turn themselves in). In this case the perpetrator appears to be deceased, and apparently no charges will be filed. As for earlier efforts by law enforcement, it is sad but true that there was seemingly not enough hard evidence to execute a search warrant on Mr. Johnson over all those years. I suspect he was most likely uncooperative with any investigation, and the options for the authorities are few under those circumstances. In addition, what was undoubtedly a spectacular violin bow by Francois Tourte was not recovered with the Ames violin. It would probably be worth well into six figures by now, and its fate remains unknown.

Until last week I was only aware of three cases in the last 40 years in which a Stradivarius had been deliberately stolen but had not yet been recovered. Thankfully (but tragically), now there are two- the 1714 Le Maurien Stradivari, stolen in New York in 2002, and the Davidoff-Morini Stradivari, stolen in 1995 from the apartment of the eminent violinist Erica Morini. There are similarities between these two thefts, with the instruments taken quietly, then evaporating without much of a trace. According to FBI records, my own case remains the only targeted theft of a specific high-end instrument involving an armed robbery. I hope it stays that way.

 Anyone with information about either the Tourte bow or either Stradivari violin above is asked to contact the New York office of the FBI at 212-384-5000 and ask for agent Christopher McKeogh.

Photo courtesy NPR/Totenberg family

2 years ago |
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I hope, anyway. Somehow this was the craziest season in recent memory, with all the legal stuff and a host of personal challenges, traveling, playing, teaching, etc. so the blog suffered a bit. And now my semi-annual oath to write a little more, maybe even something interesting once in awhile. To that end, here’s a new project that I hope will be the ultimate closure to that crazy violin saga…..

I’d hoped to get a Vol. 2 of A Violin’s Life out last year sometime, but those plans were derailed last summer as the legal process kept grinding on; in fact the whole thing wasn’t totally resolved until last January, almost a year to the day. So we’re finally ready to go- I think the repertory is a nice mix of the somewhat obscure with probably the most famous violin and piano sonata ever written, and all connected to this amazing instrument in some way.

Many thanks to The Strad for this nice pieceI hope you’ll check out the link here and pitch in if you feel like it. Thanks to many generous donors we’ve gotten a few thousand in the first 5 days so we’re well on the way, but of course we want to keep the momentum going. Kickstarter backers made it happen last time, and I’m confident for this campaign as well. We’re looking forward to recording at the end of August and I’ll have both written and video updates to share. In the meantime happy summer to all!


2 years ago |
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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

3 years 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 years 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 years 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.

3 years ago |
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