What's Happening at the Symphony

UT Feature: Frank Almond: Have Violin, Will Travel

This weekend, he'll be guest concertmaster with the San Diego Symphony.

This review was featured on the UT San Diego and written by James Chute. 

Frank Almond didn’t invent the category of guest concertmaster, but it’s hard to think of another violinist who has performed that service more ably for more orchestras.

Almond, whose full-time position is concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, has performed with the London Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony, the Montreal Symphony and the Dallas Symphony, among others, as guest concertmaster. This weekend he’ll be guest concertmaster with the San Diego Symphony, filling in for Jeff Thayer.

“In certain ways, it’s the same as being a guest conductor,” the San Diego-born Almond said. “You are trying to come in to a fairly unfamiliar situation, even if you know people in the orchestra, and sense ways to really maximize the group’s potential at that particular time with that particular repertory.

“You can’t come in and turn everything upside down. That doesn’t really help. So in a certain way you are fitting into the extant machinery there. But in another way, you are always leading by example and creating a positive working atmosphere that inspires people to be at the top of their game.”

If the name Almond sounds familiar, it’s because Almond’s father, also Frank Almond, was the longtime conductor of the San Diego Master Chorale and taught at San Diego State University for 35 years.

The younger Almond learned violin in SDSU’s forward-looking Suzuki program, graduated early from Patrick Henry High School, and studied with Michael Tseitlin in Del Mar. A transformative experience at Tanglewood (the summer home of the Boston Symphony) and a third-place showing in the International Paganini Competition at age 17 convinced him that he was on the right path. The Juilliard School of Music welcomed him as a student, and the next thing he knew, he was sitting first chair in the Juilliard orchestra — he was a concertmaster.

“I’m not sure anybody really chooses to be a concertmaster, any more than they choose to be a soloist,” Almond said. “There are so many strange things that have to fall into place for it to happen, especially nowadays.”

Still, even as a student, Almond was intrigued with the concertmaster position, partly as a result of the time he spent with violinist Joseph Silverstein. Renowned as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster during the height of the orchestra’s fame, Silverstein was also a chamber musician, soloist and conductor.

“I didn’t have a burning desire to do one thing,” Almond said. “I didn’t like sitting in a section all the time. I also didn’t really like being on the road all that much and playing the same pieces over and over (as required of most soloists).

“I loved chamber music, I loved just a mix of things, and that just sort of morphed into various concertmaster positions, culminating with the one in Milwaukee.”

In Milwaukee, his maestro is Edo de Waart, who, as fate would have it, is replacing an ailing Neville Marriner as guest conductor in this weekend’s San Diego Symphony concerts. De Waart is unusually active as a guest conductor, performing with the top U.S. and European orchestras.

“Some conductors can come in and they are able to inspire people to be really focused and really on a high level artistically without intimidating them or having them play out of fear,” said Almond. “Edo is fantastic at that, which is one of the reasons he’s all over the place subbing for various orchestras.

“He’s a fabulous musician and knows how to handle those situations.”

Almond’s colleagues would say the same thing about him.

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