City Paper at SXSW: San Fermin succeeds in fusing classical and pop where so many others have failed

The history of blending classical music and rock 'n' roll is a story of blunders and stumbles. If it's not symphony orchestras turning rock hits into middle-of-the-road, easy-listening pops concerts, it's British rock bands adding classical passages to their already bloated songs like so much gingerbread molding a on rickety house. There have been exceptions—Brian Wilson, Jonny Greenwood—but the most successful venture may well be San Fermin, the Brooklyn band about to release its second album.

Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who studied composition at Yale and apprenticed under composer Nico Muhly, has found a way to combine the harmonic movement of art music with the rhythmic propulsion of pop music, the ever-changing progressions of the former and the strategic repetition of the latter. To play this music he has created a nine-person band called San Fermin.

On Tuesday, the first night of official music showcases at the South by Southwest Music Conference, San Fermin reprised songs from its self-titled 2013 debut album and introduced the music from the follow-up disc, "Jackrabbit," due next month. The casual and inebriated listener at the Hype Hotel might easily have mistaken the ensemble as just another Brooklyn indie-rock outfit, for the slamming beat and moody vocals were all there.

But the more attentive and sober observer couldn't help but discern that San Fermin was up to things few indie-rockers are capable of. There were wild, jazz-informed solos by trumpeter John Brandon, baritone saxophonist Stephen Chen, and violinist Rebekah Durham. There were vocal parts that wriggled out of the verse-chorus-bridge format to progress through successive sections. Behind the thumping primary pulse were more subtle secondary rhythms.

Ludwig-Leone, the mastermind behind this remarkable music, seemed to do his best to fade into the background. With his short brown hair, pointy nose, nerdy glasses, and rolled-up sleeves, he stood behind his two electric keyboards and navigated the changes while his comrades occupied the spotlight with powerful vocals and showy solos.

The singing was handled by Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate, who created a dialogue between a woman and a man about desire, wariness, gratification, and hurt. On 'The Count,' Kaye crooned a melancholy lament, only to be interrupted by a thrashing funk eruption by the band behind her. Soon Brandon and Chen were standing on the flanking PA speakers, barking at each other with their horns. It reminded one of the way any such rationalization of romantic failure is interrupted by aching need.

On 'Reckoning' from the new album, Tate sang of similar regret, but the small stream of his disappointment soon flowed into an ocean of churning feelings, represented by a dizzying chord progression and amplified by a series of solos. On 'Sonsick,' Kaye turned the refrain of "Oho, oho" into a pop anthem that swept the listener along.

If the music was subtle enough to catch all the nuances of such relationships, it was also emotional enough to reflect the raw passion of such encounters. And that's why this fusion of classical music and rock works so well after so many have failed.

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