How The Who Conductor & Concert Master Pulled Off Orchestral Shows in Just a Few Hours: 'It's The Who. It's a Dangerous Band'

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Jim Hill 
 The Who perform during the Moving On! Tour on May 7, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Keith Levenson & Katie Jacoby discuss the band's ambitious Moving On tour, which wraps its first leg tonight (May 30)..

If you were to guess how long it takes to pull together a full orchestral performance of The Who's eclectic catalog every night in a different city, with different local orchestra players, what would your guess be? Months? Weeks? Days?

How about a few hours? 

"These people are pros," the band's tour conductor Keith Levenson tells Billboard of the 50-odd players he's wrangled in every city on the the band's current Moving On tour, which will wrap its first leg on Thursday night (May 30) with a show at PPG Paint Arena in Pittsburgh before heading to England for a July 6 show at Wembley Stadium with special guests Eddie Vedder and openers Kaiser Chiefs, Imelda May and Connor Selby Band and then back to North America this summer. "It's very much like the Broadway model used to be of national tours, where you'd do Hello Dolly! and come in and have rehearsal Tuesday morning from 10-2, soundcheck from 5-6, and then open that night."

Except instead of showtunes, these players are biting into some of the most iconic, knotty rock opera tracks of all time, opening the thrilling show with the first five songs from Tommy ("Overture," "It's a Boy," "1921," "Amazing Journey" and "Sparks"), before diving into a frenzied "Pinball Wizard" and "We're Not Gonna Take It." As evidenced by a recent show in Nobelsville, Ind., that this writer attended, the brief rehersal time is no object for these seasoned players, both classical and rock.

Levenson says he and the orchestra have a two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal the morning of the show before The Who take the stage for their own half-hour soundcheck, then they all jam together for another half-hour. And that's it. During the show, the orchestra is onstage for an hour and 40 minutes before The Who take over for 25 minutes or so for band-only runs through hits and deep tracks, such as "Won't Get Fooled Again" and Tea & Theatre." The orchestra then returns for the final Quadrophenia set, ending with an explosive "Baba O'Riley."

The star of that jaw-dropping portion of the show is 29-year-old violinist and concert master Katie Jacoby,  who gets to re-create the song's legendary violin outro every night during "O'Riley," reimagining the solo performed by Dave Arbus on the original album. Jacoby tells Billboard her summer gig is literally the dream of a lifetime that began in high school when she discovered the song and played it during a battle of the bands -- which she won, by the way.

"I was an audacious teen and I found their manager's email and wrote him out of nowhere... told him I was 15, from Delaware and saw they were performing near there in Philadelphia and asked if they needed anyone to play the violin solo," says the classically trained player who began violin at age 6 and discovered heavy metal and rock in junior high.

The band never got back to her unsolicited offer, but in 2018, when Daltrey was heading out on the Tommy tour, she got the gig -- including the "O'Riley" solo -- which led to this summer's command performance, scored without an audition. "That solo was in my blood, so when I rolled into the first soundcheck that felt like an audition... it's definitely the quintessential classic rock violin solo, and Roger had been holding down the fort on harmonica until I came along last year and it was so gracious of him to give me that opportunity and have me on that Tommy tour."

She sees the solo as a way to add some "flair" to the show, which is why she doesn't try to tweak the melody at all, giving the audience exactly what they want every night, to predictably thunderous applause.

She's the lead violinist and concertmaster -- as well as the only other woman in the band besides touring cellist Audrey Snyder -- but Jacoby says she thinks the real stars are the local players who join them every night. "They are amazing musicians... it’s a long day, but it’s also a really exciting day, and each orchestra we've played with has either their own flavor or energy that infuse the music," she says.

"Even though they're sticking to the script every day, it’s always a revelation. Being part of something as thunderous as a Who show is really rare and magical. Having the opportunity to explore these sonic worlds that Pete [Townshend] and Roger created with the expanded palette of orchestra musicians is an immersive experience for the audience and the players."

The day players get the sheet music via PDF well before the shows, but knowing how these musicians work and their sight-reading ability, Levenson says he suspects the majority of them don't even look at the files. "I'd say 85 percent don’t look at them. Everybody thinks on every show they do, 'It’s a gig, I'm a great sight reader, what could be so hard?'" he says. "The hard part of this show is not reading... there are a lot of notes. It’s the playing with The Who."

What shocks him is the amount of joy the orchestra players have shown during the gigs, because, after all, there's only so many times you can play The Nutcracker over the years and not get bored. Plus, he says, a lot of the musicians are Who fans from back in the day and this is also their dream gig.

Like Jacoby, Levenson has his own hard-to-believe origin story with The Who. He helped orchestrate a tour Daltrey did in 1994 called Daltrey Sings Townshend, which had a simliar orhcestral profile. He's since worked with the powerhouse vocalist on-and-off over the years on various projects, including the singer's Tommy tour last summer, on which they played with "name" orchestras, such as the Dayton Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra.

When Tommy originally came out, Levenson was just "a bit young," and the year after it was released, he said he thought it would be "the end of my life" if he ever got to see them live. He snuck out to do just that at Madison Square Garden in the late 1970s for the first time and then caught the band a few more times in the 1980s before getting tapped in 1994 to work with Daltrey. "I had four shows running on Broadway at the time -- I composed one, conducted another and programmed synths on two more -- and they all closed on the same day, a Sunday, and that Monday, my phone rang as I was sitting in despair with the offer to conduct Roger's tour. ... It was more than a dream come true. It was reallly a series of strange and mysterious events."

With a nearly four-decade history of touring rock and Broadway shows, conductor/arrranger/composer Levenson says he's got a long list of names he can choose from when putting together these nightly ad hoc orchestras, which are filled out by a national contractor who helps plug any musical gaps.

"We’ve had glitches every night," he says. "But it's The Who. It's a dangerous band. It’s not like we're doing Rod Stewart Sings the American Songbook, where you play one note all night and you're not playing with one of the greatest drummers in the world [Zak Starkey]." That's why Levenson often finds himself "calling audibles from scrimmage" if things go sideways, which is just part of the fun. "I don't think The Who has ever had the reputation of being a perfect band."

As for whether the tightly scripted orchestral part of the show might change on the second run -- which resumes Sept. 3 with a show at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto -- Levenson says he "definitely" plans to tweak things in the future. "There will definitely be some tweaks for the Wembley show because we may have a few songs from the new album by then and I assume by the second North American leg, we might play a couple as well."