This article originally appeared in the winter 2014 Harker Quarterly.
Milwaukee Symphony concertmaster Frank Almond gave audiences a rare chance to see and hear one of the world’s most famous musical instruments at the first concert of the 2014-15 Harker Concert Series season. The centuries-old Lipinski Stradivarius, which briefly went missing earlier this year after Almond was attacked following a performance, has a long and storied history, one that figured into the evening’s repertoire.
Rather than start with the music, Almond opted first to address the crowd on the history of the Lipinski and its connection to two of the pieces he would be playing. Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor, commonly known as “The Devil’s Trill,” was a fitting choice as the first piece of the evening, he explained, as Tartini was the Lipinski’s first known owner.
When it came time for the sonata’s third movement, Almond proved more than up to the task of traversing it. Among the more impressive and moving displays of the evening was an unaccompanied section consisting almost entirely of treacherously difficult double stop trills, handled so well that any thoughts of the virtuosity involved all but vanished.
Impressive though it was, it seemed almost like a warmup for Almond’s rendition of J.S. Bach’s legendary Chaconne from Partita in D minor. A marvel of sheer creativity, the chaconne begins with a simple four-measure theme that is taken through dozens of variations, resulting in a piece that for centuries has been hailed for its emotional and structural depth. Bach’s vision was served well by Almond’s masterful hands, which beautifully manipulated the Lipinski to illustrate the uniqueness of each variation and how they combine into a brilliant whole.
Harker parent Prashant Fuloria (Anika, grade 6; Varun, grade 3) enjoyed the performance of the Bach piece in particular and said that the concert’s atmosphere was a good environment for many age groups. “It’s not too formal. Kids can go around and be kids and listen to some great music,” he said.
“It is breathtaking,” attendee Lynn Mitchell said of Almond’s performance. “I particularly enjoy the Röntgen piece.” She also enjoyed the “inviting” atmosphere of the venue, and said the food was “delicious.”
The final piece for the evening was Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A Major, which was chosen, Almond said, because “it’s fun to play.” Pianist Jeffrey Sykes set the tone with a soft bedding of chords before being joined by the violin, whose vulnerable melodies were gorgeously rendered as they swayed rhythmically with the piano, the two trading melancholic lines. An urgent, almost sinister assemblage of piano notes opened the next movement before bursting into a dazzling run. Almond expertly utilized the Lipinski’s warm lower registers to introduce the frantic, flowing melody, which both contrasted and played off of the panicked piano underneath. The slow and repentant third movement was beautifully anchored by Sykes’ emotive subtleties, punctuated by anguished outbursts. As if to make up for the anxiety and despair of the previous two movements, the sonata shifted into an uplifting and determined mood, bringing back the theme from the first movement for a rollicking finish.