In the music spotlight: Pete Townshend’s ‘Classic Quadrophenia’

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Pete Townshend performs with The Who in August 2017 at the Outside Lands Music Festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. | Amy Harris/Invision/AP

In 2015, Who guitarist Pete Townshend and composer Rachel Fuller released the album “Classic Quadrophenia.” It was the culmination of an ambitious project to faithfully orchestrate the Who’s 1973 double-length concept album “Quadrophenia,” a rock opera telling the story of a teenage “Mod” in mid-’60s London named Jimmy. As Jimmy struggles to come to terms with himself, warring elements of his personality split into four alter egos represented by the original Who lineup. Key songs include urgent rocker “The Real Me”; pensive, acoustic guitar-driven “I’m One,” and stratospheric anthem “Love Reign O’er Me.”

At an album launch event in New York City, Townshend said his original intention was merely to document the work. Nonetheless, he wanted to allow for the possibility of future performance as part of orchestral repertoire. “It could happen that one day when all the rock guitarists have gone and all of the iPads have been burned up by the neutron bomb, there would still be a few really good Jewish violin players who could read the score and perform this piece of music live,” he said, referring to favorite player Jascha Heifetz.

Classic Quadrophenia” is now on a five-city North American tour. Proceeds from Wednesday’s performance at the Rosemont Theatre benefit Teen Cancer America. Townshend is a co-founder of the organization, and recent Who tour dates including stops at Allstate Arena and United Center have supported the cause. The organization partners with hospitals throughout the country to provide youth-oriented centers within medical facilities for teenagers and young adults.

The concert will include guest vocalists in key roles, and music by the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra and Chicago Children’s Choir. Robert Ziegler returns to the project as conductor.

Alt-rock icon Billy Idol has performed the role of the Ace Face dating back to The Who’s first revival of “Quadrophenia” in 1996. Townshend appears as The Godfather, and performs songs including “Drowned.” Pearl Jam singer and lifelong Who fan Eddie Vedder will also participate. Pearl Jam has performed several songs from “Quadrophenia,” and Vedder joined the Who in Chicago for “The Real Me” in 2015.

The role of Jimmy is performed by noted British operatic tenor Alfie Boe. “I grew up on rock music, and always had that fantasy of being a rock singer before I trained as an opera singer,” said Boe in a press release. “I’ve always thought the classical voice can lend itself to this type of repertoire. It’s harder than opera, but thrilling to sing.”

Townshend believes “Quadrophenia” can resonate with orchestral audiences. “Hopefully, they will get the same message from this music that [Who] audiences have been getting for a long time,” he says. “Even if you’re [stranded] on a rock in the rain, there is hope.”

* Classic Quadrophenia benefitting Teen Cancer America, 8 p.m., Sep. 13, Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd, Rosemont. Admission: $100-$1500;

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer. Email:

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