BY JOAN ELOVITZ KAZAN | PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Given his many roles throughout the local music community, Frank Almond’s nickname could arguably be “Slash” — Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster slash soloist slash virtuoso violinist slash artistic director of the chamber music series Frankly Music. Most importantly, though, Almond is “Dad” to teenage daughters Tessa, 15, and Gabrielle, 13.
In his full-time job as concertmaster for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO), Almond stands next to the conductor, a post that demands not only top-notch musical skills, but also diplomacy and patience.
“The job of the people up front is to set a level of professionalism,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of great conductors come through and we’ve also had people who didn’t mesh as well. We take pride in not going below a certain level … because MSO is such a great orchestra, we make the conductors look good.”
Growing up in San Diego, Almond couldn’t have envisioned that his musical talent would take him over the world. Nor could he have predicted raising a family in Milwaukee. “I grew up in a house that had a lot of music,” he recalls. “My parents were music teachers, and they saw music as part of a well-rounded education.”
Music became Almond’s passion — and ultimately his profession. “I wound up at Julliard and stayed in New York for 10 years,” Almond explains. “If you go to a place like Julliard and you’re surrounded by people doing things at an incredibly high level, you see what’s possible — and maybe what’s not. I feel fortunate to have played in places around the world.”
Almond is part of an exciting chapter in MSO’s history. With the arrival of music director Ken-David Masur and a new concert hall set to open in 2020, the symphony is on the verge of tremendous growth.
“Clearly to me, Ken-David was THE choice,” Almond says. “He’s a great musician, a wonderful conductor and he’s been able to seamlessly fit into the vibe of the city. We didn’t want somebody flying in and out who had nothing to do with the fabric of what’s happening here culturally. I think he’s a perfect fit at the perfect time and we were fortunate to grab him.”
In Almond’s view, the transformation of the former Warner Grand Theatre into MSO’s state-of-the-art home is a win-win for Milwaukee. “We’re saving a historic building that would have been torn down and lost forever had we not done this project,” Almond says. “People have been trying for years to find a way to bridge that gap between the Grand Avenue Mall and Marquette. … It’s not just transformative for the MSO, it’s also a revitalization project for the city. To me it’s a real source of pride and promise, and it’s something I never would have imagined in my time here.”
A concertmaster is used to a certain level of recognition in the classical music world, but Almond became the subject of intense media attention resulting from an incident on a frigid January night in 2014.
After performing in a Frankly Music chamber concert, Almond had his Lipinski Stradivarius slung over his shoulder as he walked to his car outside Wisconsin Lutheran College. His main concern was how sub-zero temperatures and dangerous wind chills might affect the instrument. A bumbling burglar immobilized Almond with a taser, grabbed the then 299-year-old violin that was on extended loan to Almond from a local family, and ran.
Almond could have hit his head on the frozen pavement. He could have sustained debilitating injuries from the fall. Fortunately, he was physically fine, though the thought of an armed robber targeting him was highly disturbing. “I found out later on that [the burglar] planned this for three or four years,” Almond recalls. “There was an odd stalking element to it. It’s such a weird case and it’s still pretty singular.”
With extra encouragement from the chief of police, law enforcement sprang into action and their efforts paid off. “The FBI and homicide detectives worked 18-hour days and nine days later I got the violin back in relatively good shape. The fact that we got it back so quickly, it was kind of a miracle,” Almond adds.
The curious crime led to a Vanity Fair article and then the documentary film “Plucked,” which premiered in April at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
Almond looks back on the incident with a sense of humor. “This was like a Coen brothers movie, to steal something like that,” he says with a chuckle. “Most people don’t consider that sort of crime because you can’t do anything with it. The main guy that planned it had half a plan, but I don’t think he figured out what was coming next.”
Today, Almond is facing the enormous challenge of solo parenting his daughters following his wife Kate’s death in October of 2017. It’s a difficult adjustment for the whole family.
“Kate was very much involved with a lot of cultural things in town,” Almond reflects. “We had a good life for a long time and she got ill and passed away. She was raising our daughters, and it’s been a massive, massive transition.”
Fellow MSO members, friends and family have all stepped up to help Almond and his daughters find their new normal. “Kate was fondly remembered by people in the arts,” Almond says. “The outpouring of support after this saga says a lot about the character of the city. … We had a lot of help. It’s indescribable in so many ways.” MKE