To Gild A Classic: Pete Townshend Goes Symphonic

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The Who (from left): Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle. ‘Quadrophenia’ came out in 1973.
(Photo courtesy of thewho.com)

Pete Townshend: Classic Quadrophenia. Alfie Boe, Billy Idol, Phil Daniels (vocals) Pete Townshend (vocal, guitar). London Oriana Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Robert Ziegler (conductor). Deutsche Grammophon 289 4794528.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – Back in 1993, a time when several rock stars were wading into the classical arena, I asked Pete Townshend at a press conference whether he, too, would be interested in writing a classical piece. It wasn’t an unreasonable thing to ask, for The Who’s rock opera Tommy had received the symphonic treatment in 1972 – and it turns out that Townshend, at the prompting of his onetime-manager Kit Lambert (son of composer and conductor Constant Lambert), had been taking in opera at Covent Garden, with Britten’s Peter Grimes being a particular favorite. But he answered with a sneer in his voice, “Noooo.”

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The symphonic version of the rock opera was first performed July 5.

Well, time passes and minds change. With his 70th birthday approaching in May and the idea of “legacy” in mind, Townshend decided to have his second, and best, full-length rock opera, Quadrophenia, converted into a classical work. He entrusted his companion of 17 years, composer-arranger Rachel Fuller, to score the piece for symphony orchestra and choir (assisted in three songs by Martin Batchelar), so you can be sure that this is an authorized version. Deutsche Grammophon signed on, the Royal Philharmonic and a choir were hired – and voila! – a spectacle fit for a cavernous barn like London’s Royal Albert Hall, where Classic Quadrophenia was first performed July 5, was born.

Townshend: Influenced by 'Peter Grimes.'
Townshend: Influenced by ‘Peter Grimes.’

Actually, Quadrophenia is a better candidate for a big symphonic treatment than Tommy; the original 1973 Quadrophenia album by The Who was loaded down with dense early-synthesizer and brass instrumentation, making Tommy seem like chamber music by comparison.

Like its predecessor, Quadrophenia is more of a song cycle than an opera, tracing the angst of a working-class kid named Jimmy who is confused and alienated, feels rejected by everyone, and in the end winds up on a rock off the English coastline contemplating everything. The analogy of Jimmy to Peter Grimes as an outsider is clear, as Townshend now admits.

Fuller didn’t have to do all that much to flesh out the textures – some re-harmonizations and counter-lines here and there – and it is faithful to the structure of the original rock opera. However, this arrangement frequently makes Quadrophenia feel like a Lord Of The Rings Symphony sequel; at times it lies there like a beached whale, whereas The Who’s version lifts off despite its weight. Yet this arrangement makes Townshend’s youthful gropings toward symphonic form much clearer than The Who’s original recording. Townshend seemed to have picked up on the idea of leitmotifs, devoting separate themes – all memorable ones – to all four sides of Jimmy’s personality and tying them to individual members of The Who. In the instrumental “The Rock,” Townshend actually weaves these themes together in a Wagnerian way; indeed, we also hear a surging aquatic motif that is very close to the Rhine leitmotif in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

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Alfie Boe sings Jimmy, an alienated working-class kid.

Tenor Alfie Boe handles Jimmy’s part in a manner pitched somewhere between The Who’s Roger Daltrey’s heroic bluster and pop-operatic belting, fighting to be heard above the orchestrations in the mix. Billy Idol and Phil Daniels (the original Jimmy) chip in the subsidiary roles effectively; Idol perfectly mimics The Who’s Keith Moon’s Cockney spiel on “Bell Boy.” Townshend’s own involvement as a performer is minimal – a growling vocal as the Godfather on “The Punk and the Godfather,” and some barely audible acoustic guitar on “I’m One” and “Drowned.”

Should Classic Quadrophenia be taken seriously, or is it destined to be written off as a pretentious curio? For me, it confirms the durability of Pete Townshend’s songs and concept; unlike most attempts to convert pop or film scores into symphonic lollapaloozas, this one repays repeated listening because the songs are of such high quality. And it may help bolster the bottom lines of struggling symphony orchestras looking to lure pop audiences into the tent, if for just one night. They could do a lot worse.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.