MILWAUKEE – It should have been one of those nights musicians live for. Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for nearly two decades, had just closed a chamber concert in his own “Frankly Music” series with Messiaen’s hushed, eerily intense “Quartet for the End of Time.”
Almond drew the graceful, ringing high notes of the finale from his prized 1715 Stradivarius violin, producing a tone so intensely focused that the audience in the Wisconsin Lutheran College’s 388-seat auditorium sat in awed silence for 20 seconds before applauding.
But the glow of the moment evaporated quickly, once Almond, 49, stepped into the college art center’s parking lot at 10:20 p.m. Monday, his violin carefully swaddled against the subzero temperatures and minus-25-degree wind chill. And as he neared his car, a figure stepped up to him and shot him with a stun gun.
It happened in a matter of seconds: Almond dropped the violin, the attacker scooped it up and jumped into a late 1980s or early 1990s maroon or burgundy minivan, where an accomplice was waiting to speed away.
Edward A. Flynn, the Milwaukee police chief, said late Thursday afternoon that Almond had described the thieves as a man and a woman. Flynn has given the value of the violin as “the high seven figures.” The police said earlier that the violin’s empty case had been found several miles from the hall.
A spokeswoman for the orchestra confirmed that the instrument was insured, but said that because of the investigation, she could not provide details about the amount, or what restrictions, if any, applied to the use of the instrument. Given its prominence – high-resolution photographs of Strads are plentiful – it would be virtually impossible to sell the instrument on the open market.
“We’re not engaging in the pretense that this is just any other crime,” Flynn said Thursday. “This is an extraordinary art theft. It is just as extraordinary as if some master criminal crept into the Milwaukee Art Museum and stole several of its most valuable pieces. It’s an inordinately rare violin of unquestioned provenance, made 300 years ago and worth a lot of money. So obviously we are treating this like much more than just another mugging.”
For Almond, the last few days have been a surreal combination of enforced silence – the police have advised him not to speak publicly about the theft – and psychic pain over having lost a beloved instrument that is both valuable and rare.
Antonio Stradivari was, by common agreement among violin fanciers, the master builder of violins, a creator of instruments with a sound that subsequent makers have been at a loss to reproduce. Fewer than 650 of Stradivari’s violins survive, and Almond’s – which was given to him on “permanent loan” by an anonymous patron in 2008 – is regarded as a particularly fine example.
“The owner is someone with strong ties to Milwaukee and to the orchestra,” Mark Niehaus, president of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, said, “but not a member of our board. People who own these instruments enjoy hearing them played.” Niehaus said the orchestra had concerts this weekend, but that Almond would still be recuperating, and would not perform.
Flynn said the police were evaluating video from security cameras. The FBI has also been brought into the case, and has informed Interpol, which will add the Strad to its database of stolen art.
For Niehaus, the fate of the violin is only part of the story.
“The orchestra, and the entire city, is in shock,” he said. “Frank is an old-fashioned concertmaster, in the sense that people recognize him in the supermarket. So for me personally, I’m just glad he’s OK, because in the end, the violin is just a thing. It’s highly prized possession, and there’s a mystique about it. But it’s just a thing.”