Frank Almond Speaks with about the 'Lipinski' Strad Theft and Recovery

February 16, 2014, 12:55 AM · It's been a long three weeks for Milwaukee Symphony Concertmaster Frank Almond, who in that time was tased by art thieves and robbed of the Stradivarius violin he plays. He spent the next week in long interviews with police and FBI. Media outlets from all over the world called, emailed and even showed up at his house.

Frank AlmondNonetheless he continued to perform, playing concerts in Florida on the same day that police announced the violin's recovery in Milwaukee. A few days later, he was back in Milwaukee, playing a recital on the recovered 'Lipinski' Strad.

Frank has displayed incredible grace and patience throughout the ordeal, though he mentioned that he really would like to go practice at this point. Nonetheless, he took some time on Thursday to talk with me, on his way home to Milwaukee, from teaching at Northwestern University in Evanston.

Laurie: It's been kind of a crazy couple weeks for you. Have you had to take off a lot of time from work?

Frank: Officially I was off the week after it happened. There was really no way I could deal with everything that was going on with the police, the FBI and everything. It wasn't so much physical stuff, but just time-consuming interviews with them concerning the investigation. You had to be available to them all the time.

Laurie: It must have been so weird to be dropped all of a sudden into this complete alternate reality -- like a CSI episode or something!

Frank: It really was! And it continues. It's not really over yet, of course, even though they found the violin. It's a whole world that I never expected to have much to do with. I've done about 25 different things in the last two weeks that I never thought I would do!

Laurie: What was the most bizarre of them?

Frank: Probably spending six or seven hours talking to detectives, in an interrogation room. They were very nice and everything. What was interesting is that (the violin world) was not really their world, either. So they were really fascinated by the whole case. Then here I was, down (at police headquarters), spending a lot of time with a lot of homicide detectives (he laughs) which is not something I ever really expected!

Laurie: When this happened, at what point did you realize what was going on?

Frank: Um, when he shot me with a taser!

Laurie: Did you know, he's going to take the violin?

Frank: No, not really, because I didn't really know what it was until it went off. It was just a guy walking -- it was very dark and it was very cold outside, they were parked right next to my car, backed in, and it was this van that was running. But I just thought he was picking somebody else up from work or something, which would have made perfect sense. It was late, and there had just been a reception. But there was nothing out of the ordinary, except that he was walking very slowly toward me and just got a little bit closer and closer. I had just put some stuff in my car, and I was about open the door to put the violin in the car. I thought he was just going to walk by me, so I was kind of backing up, and I just saw a couple lights in, I think it was his right hand -- probably that's what happens just before you get hit with a taser.

As soon as that happened, I knew that they were probably going for the violin.

Laurie: I mean that would be a little sophisticated for your wallet.

Frank: Probably (he laughs). But it was very, very unusual for any robbery. Nobody really uses a taser for a robbery, which is one of the first things that I discovered. But I was happy it wasn't something else. They're very effective -- I was immobilized quite rapidly, and it doesn't feel so great. I got up very, very quickly, in time to see them driving off, not very far away.

Laurie: So they were parked right next to you?

Frank: Yes, right next to my car.

Laurie: That's creepy, wow.

Frank: Yes, he definitely had done his homework.

Laurie: When you are shot with a taser, is there lingering pain?

Frank: No, it wasn't any kind of serious injury. They're like little fish hooks, and one of them went into my right wrist, so there was a fair amount of blood on my hand, but it was just a puncture wound, it wasn't a big deal. The other one went into my chest, but it was mostly stopped by a jacket I was wearing.

Laurie: How soon were you able to get help after this happened?

Frank: Well, there were still a couple of musicians in the parking lot. Todd Levy was there, he's our principal clarinet player for the Milwaukee Symphony; and Christopher Taylor, who's the really amazing pianist who had played with us that night. I was yelling, I was making a fair amount of noise by that time, and Todd ran right over. He's a very old friend of mine, and we were all just trying to figure out what just happened. He put it together pretty quickly -- I was probably hysterical. But I did call 911 almost immediately, even before Todd got over there. It took them a little while to find us; we were in the parking lot in a university.

So they showed up, but it did take a bit of time to explain what was going on to a couple of guys in the squad cars. They're beat cops, and they were great, but they didn't really understand what we were talking about: a violin? That's worth how much? How do you spell that? S-T-R-A…

Todd ended up making a lot of phone calls that sort of saved the day because I think within about an hour, some other people were involved that were trying to move things along a little faster, and the gravity of this situation became a little more apparent.

Laurie: I suppose time was of the essence, too.

Frank: Well it was to me, and I knew that. But if they didn't exactly understand what I was talking about, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to them. They were trying to get the facts of what happened, and honestly it took them a little while to figure out whether they should get a detective involved. They wound up with about 40 detectives involved, so it was eventually a good decision!

Laurie: I understand that they discarded the violin case during the getaway. But were your bows in that case?

Frank: They got rid of the case, and I'm not exactly sure what the timeline was, but the police found the case the next morning. It didn't take them long to find the case, and everything was in the case except the violin and those two bows. They took the two bows, which were also recovered with the violin, in reasonably good shape.

Laurie: Can I ask what the bows were worth?

Frank: Well, the bows were both mine, and they are quite nice. One is a Nicolas Maire and the other is a Emile Ouchard -- so you can do the math. Well into the five figures!

It was a clue that meant, to me, that at least the person knew something about what they were taking; nothing else in the case was touched. The police took the case right away, they were processing it. I'm sure they got some good evidence from it.

Laurie: You and I had spoken about this fiddle and your project, A Violin's Life -- but how long have you been playing it?

Frank: I've been playing it since 2008.

Laurie: How bonded are you to this instrument?

Frank: That's difficult question. It's sort of a cliche, that people develop a special kind of relationship with whatever instrument they're playing for a lengthy period of time. But this is a really unique violin. It also has been a big part of a project for me (A Violin's Life) that wasn't too old yet. There's probably more depth to my involvement with this instrument than any other instrument I've played, as spectacular as the others were. There's also been a shift in the way I've approached my playing because of this instrument as well. So I'd say it was maybe a little bit more intense relationship than with some other instruments.

It's always a challenge not to have your identity completely wrapped up into it -- if you're trying to be some sort of healthy human! You don't want to get totally taken away. That said, it's the thing that I spend the most amount of time in my life with. That's how it is, if you're doing what I'm doing. I think when something with that relationship is disrupted in some way, especially if it's suddenly or unexpectedly, it's very disorienting and, of course, traumatizing in a certain way, at least at first.

Laurie: What has it been like to be at the center of a media circus, or did it feel like that?

Frank: It was also disorienting. The first couple of days after it happened were kind of a blur. Media from literally all over the world were trying to get in touch with us -- calling us at home and, in some cases, just showing up at the house. I've got to say, everybody was pretty nice about it. I think once they figured out I wasn't going to say much, it got a little easier. But that was going on at the same time that I was dealing with a lot of things like police, and FBI, and insurance companies…it's just time-consuming. Instead of practicing, I'm doing a lot of things that I didn't think I would be doing! (he laughs)

And then the same thing started, in a completely different way, when they found the violin! Then it got even more intense. It was truly insane, because I was out of town, and we were trying to play these fundraising events for the orchestra. People were trying to reach me by phone and by email, and I was trying also to play. I feel sorry for our press and marketing person at the orchestra who really had to deal with most of it -- Susan Loris, she should get some sort of medal for what she was able to achieve! But I've never turned down so many interviews in my life! (He laughs)

Laurie: What was it like when you had the first concert back with the violin last Monday in Milwaukee?

Frank: This story resonated with so many people, on so many levels, around the world. Locally, it kind of took on a life of its own. It was quite amazing to step out there and play for those people who I knew were there for a lot of great reasons. At the same time, you could tell that things were going to be different in my life, because there was this enormous security presence. It was a concert that I certainly had the choice to cancel, but even before the violin was found, I felt that (pianist) Bill (Wolfram) and I should just go and play, almost to make a point. Either way, we were going to do it. But it involved a lot of logistics that I wasn't necessarily used to dealing with.

Laurie: How have things changed for you, as far as security is concerned?

Frank: Obviously, I can't really get into the details. I think anybody that's playing any kind of instrument like this is most likely reassessing or reexamining how they live with these things and work with them. Logically or not, I think it's a natural human reaction. In my own situation, it's so fresh, that I'm certainly cognizant of things that I wasn't before. I've had to make a few adjustments.

Laurie: People have said a lot about this incident, good and bad, but one of the things was that if you have an instrument like this you shouldn't tell anybody and you should keep it secret. I don't know if that makes any sense.

Frank: I don't know of any Golden-Period Strad that's being played publicly where nobody knows who has it. I defy anybody to name one. I mean, people play them publicly, they're usually in their bios. I think that to keep the identity of an instrument at that level secret is not realistic or practical. The question is more: how do you handle it on a day-to-day basis, what precautions do you take, what kind of protocols do you follow?

I can totally understand the questions from some people: why are you walking in a parking lot like that, late at night after a concert? On the surface, that seems like a logical question. But I think a lot of people also don't understand that part of the protocol of living with these things is being inconspicuous and sort of practical in terms of not drawing attention to yourself or the instrument. That, coupled with the fact that they are almost never stolen. You're much more likely to be in a plane crash than have a Stradivarius stolen. Even if it is stolen, the chances are it's going to resurface at some point; it may take a couple years. But the odds are very much against trying to steal them, for a variety of factors.

All of that is a huge argument against drawing attention to it. I mean, you can walk around with an armed guard, sure. Or you could handcuff it to your wrist -- but if somebody wanted to steal it, they're not going to get a key for the handcuffs! And if you've got an armed guard, that's much different than having a little brown case that you're carrying, walking down the streets of New York. People carry briefcases full of jewelry all the time, nobody knows what's in them. But if you have 15 security guards with you, everybody knows that it's something significant.

It's always a balance, and I think that the normal way of doing it has certainly worked well for most people, as evidenced by the fact that they're hardly ever stolen. I would also say that there were many precautions that were taken in my case, that a lot of people don't know about. I've been extremely lucky to be given these instruments, off and on, for 30 or 35 years, and I'm pretty familiar with how to take care of them and what to do with them. My biggest fear was doing something stupid with it, like leaving it in a parking lot, or on top of the car like a coffee mug or something.

Laurie: Those things happen fairly frequently with instruments.

Frank: It happens all the time! Most of the time you see people leaving them on a train, or in taxis, and these are not dumb little kids. Yo-Yo left his in a cab, and Lynn Harrell had problems with it, Gidon Kremer left his on an Amtrak train a few years ago. I totally understand, when those sorts of things happen, and that really was my biggest fear, I think.

Laurie: I did read what the owner of the 'Lipinski' Strad wrote to you -- how was she about the whole incident?

Frank: We were all just devastated, of course. I think she was the first person I called the next morning, after they found the case, I got home at about 5 a.m. and they found the case a couple hours later. The owners and I have a very unique relationship, we're pretty close. So that helps quite a bit. We had a lot of shared pain, and once in a while, moments of levity, because the whole thing was just so insane. And we spent a lot of time together, she was over at my house quite a bit, for sometimes hours at a time. One of us would be in one corner of the living room on the phone, and the other would be in the other corner, talking to somebody else. It just went on for days like that. We're very honest and very trusting of each other, and I think her statement said a lot about who she is as a person and what her priorities are.

Laurie: It looks like you received some pictures from kids!

Frank: Right, yeah! (He chuckles) My two daughters drew the picture that I put up on my Facebook page.

Child's picture for Frank

They drew it one day and left it for me, and I thought it was really funny. Very, very touching. One daughter started it and the other one finished it. But I got a lot of other stuff from kids in the mail. The detectives actually wound up getting some pictures, too, which was very touching. For homicide detectives, that's a different kind of thing! They're not used to getting pictures from kids, thanking them!

Laurie: It sounds like the whole city of Milwaukee really went on a ride with this whole thing.

Frank: Yes, and it's ongoing. There's still tremendous discussion about it, and deservedly so. It's extraordinary, what the police department did, what law enforcement did -- it's unprecedented, in my experience. I think it was just amazing, what those guys pulled off.

Laurie: The detective work was amazing, tracing the taser.

Frank: I didn't know a lot about what they were doing most of the time. That was one of the other interesting things: they were very quiet and reserved about what was happening. They seemed pretty confident that it was a local connection mostly, and that was about it. And I admit that I probably would have been very skeptical of that, from my knowledge of how these things usually work.

Laurie: How is the violin doing?

Frank: It seems to be okay; it sounded great at the concert, and I spent a lot of time with it over the weekend. I'm going to get back with the orchestra starting tonight, actually. There were a few little cosmetic things on it, but nothing major. It's astonishing, really, when you think about it. I don't know exactly why or how that happened, but it was in good shape.

Laurie: Do you have anything to add?

Frank: The one thing I do have to say is that, from the very first day this whole ordeal started, it was an unbelievable, colossal outpouring of concern and support, a lot of it on social media, a lot of it people sending me email messages and I'm sure a lot of your readers stepped right up. Almost without exception, it just brought out the best in everybody. No matter how it ended up, I was extremely touched. That was very meaningful to me and my family, and it helped a lot. So I just wanted to thank everybody again for that. It made more difference than I think some people realize.

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February 16, 2014 at 05:06 PM · I wonder what the thieves intended to do with it.

February 16, 2014 at 08:35 PM · Great interview, Laurie!

February 16, 2014 at 08:37 PM · Great story! Thanks and glad no one was hurt. Be careful out there!

February 16, 2014 at 09:58 PM · Thank you Laurie, and please thank Frank Almond for being so generous with his time and words--after having so much of both expended on this thing.

My hope is he can return to a normal life--although it'll probably be a good long time before he doesn't look at any approaching stranger with suspicion.

February 16, 2014 at 10:34 PM · Here's another neat outcome: the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra invited hundreds of members of the Milwaukee Police Department for the Pops this weekend, and last night the main detectives involved all came onstage to be recognized. Here's a story about it. And here's a nice picture of one of the detectives:

Detective Shaun
Detective Shaun with the 'Lipinski' Strad, at last night's MSO Pops concert

February 16, 2014 at 11:42 PM · Laurie, the photo made me laugh! The detective holding the violin stands next to a sign saying "not responsible for lost or stolen articles." TOO funny.

February 17, 2014 at 04:01 AM · Marjory, it's hard to believe it wasn't staged that way, but you know what they say: Truth is stranger! Good eye anyway!

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