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Interview: Keith Levenson

Interview: Keith Levenson

“There’s never a perfect show, which is great with the Who, because the Who doesn’t play perfect shows.”

By this point in their career, 55 years, the Who should be doing these old man things, like lining up orchestras to play their old standards. Of course, the Who never do anything properly, and putting an orchestra behind Tommy and their other music has proven to be an energizing step that offers new appreciation for these songs, even as Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and the latest iteration of the band work on a new album.

Last year, Daltrey did a short tour where he and some regular collaborators like guitarist Simon Townshend and bassist Jon Button performed Tommy backed by local orchestras. The tour resulted in remarkable reworkings of the classic, recently released as The Who’s Tommy Orchestral. It also prompted further action from the Who, who are in the midst of their “Moving On!” tour, which features orchestras playing selections from Tommy and Quadrophenia along with some hits and deep cuts (the show also pares down to just the band and the two original members). The new structure has brought something special to the group that’s never flagged on stage.

At the center of both the Tommy tour and album and the current tour is conductor Keith Levenson, who draws on his experience as a performer, arranger, conductor and more for this challenge. He also draws on his enthusiasm for the music itself, a fit blending of his personal and professional background. Levenson got his start playing piano in “the pits of Broadway orchestras” as a teenager. He later began conducting national tours of Broadway shows, and has spent plenty of time on the road. He’s done “tons of tours, thousands of performances,” including shows like Annie, Peter Pan, and Jesus Christ Superstar, but over the past few decades he “got lucky to fall into the rock world or the symphonic rock world or whatever you want to call it.”

“Whatever it is that I do,” he said with a laugh.

Levenson’s career track didn’t start with great plans, and he essentially stumbled into what turned out to be a remarkable career.

“At that age, I don’t know that I was even particularly looking for work,” he explained. “I happened to be playing a cocktail party once at 16 or 17 years old. A young Paul Shaffer was at that party. At the time he was the musical director at a show called The Magic Show on Broadway and he needed a sub on, like, Wednesday and Saturday or something like that. And he said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ and I was like, ‘Sure.’ One thing led to another. I’ve always been interested in live music. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a theater musician. I was a pretty good piano player back then. I’m not as good now.”

While Levenson was working in musical theater, he was still drawn to rock, and the Who resonated with him early on.

“It started even with Tommy,” he said. “Maybe the combination of, by then, my theatrical background and the fact that I found the music so operatic in a rock way – it was life-changing for me. I thought there’s a place for me musically. For Tommy it was the storyline. With Quadrophenia, it was the scope of the music. It was so far beyond anything I’d studied classically. It became my classical music.”

Levenson writes about that idea in the liner notes to the new release, comparing Townshend’s writing to that of Puccini or Mozart in the sense that these works that were written for the short term can develop unexpected staying power, and the remarkable force of the orchestral version – both on disc and in concert – supports that idea.

“Our audiences still feel that way about it,” he continued, “whether they’re 17 or 70. Pete’s music has become our modern classical. Now it’s orchestrated, which gives it, I guess, some kind of legitimacy. The new Tommy album certainly does that. Aside from making it – which was amazing – I listen to it and go, ‘Wow, people my age who go to symphony concerts are going to love this because it’s not The Nutcracker. It’s not Brahms’ Second. How many of those can you go to? Orchestra programming is really pretty tame. For those of us who still buy orchestra concert tickets, there’s going to be more and more of this.”

He doesn’t want to “name names,” but Levenson sees a few places where classic rock and local orchestra work could intersect. He’s discovered on the current tour and last year’s tour that “people actually take pride that it’s local musicians playing in those orchestras. And the players themselves are really into it. I’m shocked at the lack of grumbling,” adding that the musician enthusiasm and positive attitude has been one of his biggest surprises.

For the musicians, of course, there’s the excitement of getting to play a different sort of music, rock-based material that many of them already know. But it’s still an intense experience, with each concert being put together in a day with orchestras from the host cities.

“It’s an old-hat kind of model,” said Levenson, “but the actual doing of it – rehearse the show, travel day, rehearse the show, travel day – that is pretty much as intense as I’ve ever worked. Usually if you’re doing a Broadway traveling show, you do 8 shows in one week, but in one city. You don’t have to rehearse a new orchestra every other day. Just learning how to pace myself, there’s a learning curve there.”

Levenson worked with Daltrey on last year’s Tommy tour, but it wasn’t their first collaboration. He first worked with the singer on the 1994 “Daltrey Sings Townshend” summer tour. The two also came together for 1995’s The Wizard of Oz in Concert, an event that posed a special challenge for Levenson as he was called on to develop well known songs in new arrangements particularly suited for the artists. One song would have to fit Jewel, another Jackson Browne, and the next Daltrey.

“I think Roger likes working with orchestras,” Levenson says, looking back. “At least he does from time to time. ‘Daltrey Sings Townshend’ was my first connection with Roger. On and off over the years we’ve done projects together. Because our Tommy was really successful last summer, he brought the idea of doing a Who tour with Pete and they came together in the middle.”

Getting a superstar act to fit in with a rotating set of orchestras could have been a disaster, but Levenson explains that both Daltrey and Townshend have “been incredibly gracious.”

“It’s the first time Pete’s done this kind of tour,” he continued. “We needed and took a few shows to get it together and feel each other out. The only thing the band does with the orchestra is a half-hour soundcheck. There’s no way they could know the nuances of every orchestra every night. They’ll know when one orchestra is better than another, but these have been so great, I’m not sure I have a favorite.”

Levenson considers the whole tour to be a “big risk for the Who,” but he felt confident going into it.

“It could have gone pear-shaped,” he explained. “After we did Tommy last summer, I knew this would work. I kept pushing Roger: ‘Don’t let this go. We’ve proved that it works.’ The album proves that it works. It has not changed fan loyalty. I call it one big dangerous rock band. There’s never a perfect show, which is great with the Who, because the Who doesn’t play perfect shows.”

That danger still comes across in concert. The band plays much of the evening with the orchestra, but nothing feels restrained; instead, it’s just the Who in a bigger format. And while Levenson’s right that the Who doesn’t play perfect shows, the group doesn’t let anything slide.

“They are so hard on themselves,” he said. “They are hypercritical of themselves all these years later. It’s not like we ever come off stage and are all huggy. It’s always, ‘Oh, that was really good but we fucked this up.’ There’s always something we could have done better. We’re not having big parties afterward. We just keep going out there and working. I said to Pete before the first show, ‘Try to have some fun,’ and he said, ‘You’re never allowed to say that me.’ He was serious with me. He said, ‘This is always work. It’s work I happen to do really well.’”

As the show continues, it might add another song or two from the new Who album, due out this fall, but it will depend on how things go.

As for Levenson, it looks like he’s at the top of his game, and while he expects he’ll never shake the concerns of being a freelance musician – the “what’s-my-next-job thing” – he has a few ideas in mind that fit in with these “rock orchestra pieces.” It’s all part of his move “to take more of my life into my own hands now and come up with the projects that I would like to do.”

Given his current run, there’s reason for optimism. In the meantime, he’s just focusing on this tour and this album release.

“I want everybody to buy this album, stream this album,” he said. “It’s not just another version of Tommy. Even me as a huge Who fan, I’d go, ‘Oh, another Tommy album. Terrific. Who really needs that?’ I really think this is different. The overall arrangements, performances, the whole thing – aside from Roger, it’s not a star-studded album, it’s just a very well made album of some music that should be heard in this fashion.”

He might be biased, but he’s absolutely right. The way things sound, there’s reason to expect that whatever the Who, or Levenson, are moving on to, it will only continue the current excitement. Get the album here.

2 Comments on this Post

  1. Brilliant interview with a brilliant man!

    Reply
  2. Justin

    Thank you!

    Reply

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