What happens when you combine a historic theater, a famous violin and the music of Mendelssohn? The answer is “perfection.”
I have the pleasure of being a violist in Festival City Symphony – a group that has contributed to the arts scene in Milwaukee, WI for more than 75 years and has the distinction of being Milwaukee's oldest symphony orchestra. Its mission is to extend the reach of classical music in the community with interesting themes, and informative formats that embrace people of all ages. Originally known as the Milwaukee Civic Symphony Orchestra, it was renamed and performed its premier concert as Festival City Symphony on February 27, 1994, in the historic Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee.
This weekend’s concert was particularly special, as we were honored to have Milwaukee Symphony’s concertmaster, Frank Almond, as a guest artist. Mr. Almond has been the focus of enormous media attention recently with the theft, and return, of the Lipinski Stradivarius violin that he has on loan to him. I have had the pleasure of working with Mr. Almond on other performances in the past – including a benefit concert for the victims of the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami. He graciously donated his time to the performance, with a piece written by a Japanese composer from the affected province of Sendai. Working with him on that project was truly an honor.
So, when I saw the program for our 2013-2014 concert series and saw he would be playing the Mendelssohn violin concerto with us, I was very excited. I love listening to him play, and something about being in the presence of a Strad with all the history and music that has passed through it, is truly an amazing experience.
When the events of January 27, 2014 unfolded, I was worried that a piece of history might be lost forever, but thanks to the diligent work of the Milwaukee police department and the FBI, the Lipinski is back in Frank Almond’s capable hands. The events of that day had a profound impact on our concert experience, however, that we had never experienced before.
Our orchestra generally has four rehearsals per performance, plus a sound check the day of the concert. Mr. Almond was at our final rehearsal and the sound check. Because of the concern for his, and the violin’s safety, security was tight. Entrance to/from the rehearsal and performance space were limited to one door only. All of us had to check in with a security guard and show our stage credentials to be able to enter. Before, our friends and family could meet us backstage - but now they had to wait for us to exit.
Accompanying a soloist always requires a special level of attention, as the orchestra and conductor need to adjust to the individual’s tempi and style. But I will admit, it was difficult to concentrate with such a phenomenal soloist as Mr. Almond – my section members and I admitted to each other how we wished we could just listen and not play. But those darned entrances just kept coming.
In the last month, the people of Milwaukee collectively have rallied around Frank, the violin and the Milwaukee performing arts scene, as cultural treasures. The Milwaukee Symphony itself was successful in mounting a large-scale fundraising campaign to the tune (pardon the pun) of $5 million. Concerts where Mr. Almond and the Strad are performing together have been packed to the gills, as the people of Milwaukee realize the priceless jewel they have in both violin and player. Audiences for many fine arts groups, including Festival City Symphony, have grown in size. I guess what they say is true – you don't appreciate what you have until it's gone. Luckily for Milwaukee, it wasn't gone for good -- the violin was returned safe and sound for all of us to appreciate, and Mr. Almond was unharmed.
As for our concert last weekend, both audience and orchestra were feeling this heightened connection with the violin and with Frank, but we also learned that the famous "Lipinski" Strad also had an immediate connection to the concert we were playing, due to a strange set of events with Felix Mendelssohn himself. Felix Mendelssohn had been the music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the mid-1800’s. Early in Mendelssohn’s tenure, concertmaster Heinrich Matthäi became so ill that a replacement had to be found; he died soon after. One of the people to audition for the position was none other than Karol Lipinski himself. Ultimately, Mendelssohn wanted his friend, Ferdinand David, to be his new concertmaster. The famous violin concerto that Frank Almond performed with us was written for David to play. But it's incredible to think that the violin Mr. Almond was playing that night could have been heard by Mendelssohn years ago, and that if things had gone just slightly differently, the concerto could have been destined for that violin to play. Hearing our conductor, Monty Perkins, share that story with the audience resulted in gasps from patrons and musicians alike. We had history right there on stage with us, and it was life-changing.
As the final notes floated into the theater, the audience was immediately on its feet. The concert concluded with Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, but the sweet sound of the Lipinski Strad lingered on long after the lights went out. Knowing that I have shared in a part of that violin’s history is an amazing feeling.
Previous entries: March 2013