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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Madison musicians vigilant after Milwaukee Symphony concertmaster's Stradivarius violin stolen
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The theft of a musical instrument goes deeper than money.
Credit:Milwaukee Police Department

Antonio Stradivari, the famous violin craftsman, has made headlines recently. Unfortunately, it's not for the beauty and elegance of his stringed instruments, but for the theft of the 1715 Lipinski Stradivarius, a prized violin made during the master's golden age.

The theft occurred in Milwaukee on Jan. 27 as Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, walked to his car after a performance at Wisconsin Lutheran College. According to news reports, Almond was approached by the suspects who used a Taser to stun him. The shock knocked him to the ground and caused him to drop his violin case. The suspects then fled with the violin.

According to reports, the Lipinski Stradivarius has an estimated value of up to $6 million, but Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn has noted that the violin cannot easily be sold for even a fraction of its value. He called it an "art theft," and the FBI and Interpol are investigating the situation.

This is not the first time a priceless violin has been stolen. One only has to check the Art Loss Register or the FBI's art crimes list to see a Stradivarius listed here and there. But the violent nature of the Lipinski Strad theft is unusual. There are only two armed robberies on the FBI's list of top 10 art crimes.

Naha Greenholtz, the young concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, knows Almond and was a member of the Milwaukee Symphony's first violin section for a while.

"My heart really goes out to Frank, not only for the violence that was done to him, but for the terrible loss of such a remarkable instrument," she says. "I've heard that fiddle many times in concert and it lives up to the hype -- spectacular -- especially in the hands of an amazing artist like Frank."

Greenholtz, who appears frequently as a guest soloist and concertmaster for orchestras across the country, is familiar with many performance venues.

"Wisconsin Lutheran College, where Frank's violin was stolen, is in a quiet suburban area," she says. "I think that something like this, however unlikely, is more likely to happen in an area like that than, say, in downtown Milwaukee or Madison where it is well lit with lots of people around."

So how safe are musicians going to or from concerts at night? While Greenholtz says she has always felt quite safe in and around the Overture Center in Madison, in light of this incident, she will probably clutch her violin case a little tighter than normal.

While few players in the U.S. carry multimillion-dollar violins, the theft of a musical instrument goes deeper than money.

"There is subtlety in each individual string instrument that can only be understood by playing and living with that instrument day after day," Greenholtz says.

Andrew Sewell, conductor and music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, says that after selling his violin recently, "it felt like a personal loss, having owned it for over 30 years... It's like losing an old friend."

Almond is reportedly in good condition after the heist, and the violin, which was on loan to him, is probably heavily insured. But the incident also robbed the public of the uniquely transformative sound that Almond elicited from the violin. There's no insurance that covers that.

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