Concertmaster Frank Almond on Music and Loss

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2018.19 Season, In the News, MSO Musicians, Violin

Frank Almond is known for being the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony and for having his priceless Stradivarius stolen (and then recovered) four years ago. But the role that occupies him now is learning to be a widower and single father.

Almond’s wife, Kate, died almost a year ago, and “it affects every single element of my professional life and my personal life,” he said. They were married 16 years, and their daughters were 11 and 13 when their mother died.

Raising them now, he said, “I’m doing things I never thought I would do in my lifetime. But I have a support network that instantly came out of the woodwork. Everything is different now, but everyone is doing the best they can.” Some people, he said, have disappeared from his life, “because they can’t deal with it. I can barely deal with it.” It was only a few weeks ago that he finished opening the condolence cards that arrived after Kate’s death – there were a great many, and it was hard.

But the support he received from family, friends, the community at large, and the Milwaukee Symphony meant a lot. Executive Director Mark Niehaus “told me that whatever I needed to do, do it,” Almond said. “I think he was surprised that I kept playing. But it was the only way I could keep from going crazy. It was so devastating, so confusing, so challenging. If I could go upstairs and practice, or if I could go onstage and play with other people who wanted to be doing the same thing, that was a lifeline for me.”

“It was incredibly challenging to balance his family stability and be in the public eye,” said MSO principal clarinet Todd Levy, who has been friends with Almond for years. “But he’s done a great job of trying to balance. They’ve got two great kids who are really mature and grounded. Both he and his wife have done a great job of raising them.”

During the 18 months of Kate’s last illness, Frank found that he had to maintain an intense dual focus on both work (which he was used to) and his personal life. One silver lining, he said, was that he had to get better at onstage focus, and “of course, that carries over to other areas of one’s life — ideally.”

Almost a year later, he doesn’t really remember which concerts he played and which he missed. He knows he did his scheduled Frankly Music chamber concerts in September and November, but he took time off in December to help his daughters get through “a lot of firsts” without their mother during the holidays.

He praised Ilana Setapen and Jeanyi Kim, the second and third chair violinists, for their personal and professional support. “There were times I had to call the night before a rehearsal and say ‘Can you jump in?’ and they did. It’s such a good violin section. I never once questioned if (my absence) was a matter of artistic quality.”

Speaking of Almond’s professional side, Levy said, “Our orchestra is extremely lucky to have someone playing at that level. A concertmaster has to be good at a lot of things, not just playing, and he does all that stuff exceptionally well.” Especially after the saga of the stolen Stradivarius, “people feel like they know him, so coming to the concert is a more personal experience.”

Since being a teenager, Almond had thought a concertmaster job would offer the best combination of orchestral, solo and chamber music opportunities. During his studies at Juilliard, he said, “everyone wanted to be a soloist, but I wasn’t sure I wanted that life.” He won the Milwaukee position in 1995 — he was hoping that then-music director Zdenek Macal would engage him as a future soloist if he reached the finals of the audition, but instead found that he had a full-time job.

In 2002 and 2003, he took a leave of absence to play concertmaster in the London Philharmonic and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. But although he and Kate enjoyed living abroad for a while, he found that European orchestral musicians, generally, played more concerts for less money than Americans did, and he still had many commitments in the United States. However, he first met Edo de Waart in Rotterdam, and when de Waart came to Milwaukee as music director in 2008, “I knew it would be a good fit. He could be honest with me — sometimes brutally honest — and I could be honest with him.”

Today, Almond continues to be busy outside of his MSO work. This weekend, he is soloing with the Sheboygan Symphony, playing the Brahms Violin Concerto. Next week, he will be a guest of The Moth at Lincoln Center, telling the story of the theft of his violin for possible future broadcast. Having done one Moth event before, Almond said, “It’s an amazing experience. It’s so different than what I usually do.”

It will also be on the stage of Alice Tully Hall, where Almond has often played; in fact, as young man he thought of New York as a second home town. But now he’s a Milwaukeean. “It’s a great place for families,” he said. “There’s so much going on culturally, it’s an easy place to live, it has a quirkiness that’s hard to find. And of course, the orchestra has been transformed.”