The Church of Beethoven classical music experiment began in 2007 in an abandoned New Mexico gas station off Historic U.S. Route 66. Inside the tiny, less-than-orchestral space, top-notch musicians from the Albuquerque Symphony would perform every Sunday.
“I’ve never been so close to classical music,” said one regular attendee, “I was just about getting poked in the eye with a bow.”
That intimacy was just what founder Felix Wurman wanted. Wurman, a classical cellist who grew up in Oak Park, started Church of Beethoven in Albuquerque as a way to deliver classical music on a much more personal scale: “To create a new concept in classical music … to get rid of the ‘fourth wall’ between the players and the audience and create a more familial feel … a community,” is how he described it. Wurman was inspired after performing as a hired cellist at a traditional church service, he said. “How about a church that has music as its principal element rather than as an afterthought?”
In Albuquerque, Wurman and his cohorts soon created a word-of-mouth Sunday morning sensation: a “church” with no preaching or affiliation to religion — organized or disorganized. But there was plenty of spirituality there.
Within two years, Church of Beethoven outgrew its original filling station venue (now a theater space) and moved to a converted warehouse space with vaulted ceilings and chandeliers, seating 150. The music isn’t limited to Beethoven. Performers — booked six months in advance — perform both the adventurous and recognizable.
Sadly, Wurman was diagnosed with bladder cancer and died at age 51 in December 2009. But the “church” carries on in Albuquerque with a large staff of volunteers.
Now, with assistance of the Wurman family, The Church of Beethoven concept comes to Oak Park this summer at Italian restaurant Trattoria 225 — presenting three Sunday morning performances, beginning this Sunday, July 17. The concerts will feature a short one-hour classical mini-concert, with an interlude for spoken word and two minutes of silence.
Performing the music of Bach will be local youth virtuoso Scott Daniel — a violinist with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (Scott also plays bluegrass fiddle with the Oak Park Farmers Market band and in the rock band “Lej”). A Bach cello suite will be performed by Swiss cellist Katalin von Walterskirchen. Spoken word poetry by Oak Park writers Sheila Black Haennicke, Leisa Martheler Hoover and Tim Leeming is also on the “menu.”
As Albuquerque musicians discovered, Sunday mornings are perfect for classical music. Church of Beethoven concert-goers can enjoy a discounted brunch at Trattoria 225 and hopes to attract visitors to the Harrison Arts District on Sundays.
Performances are meant to be short, family-friendly and non-intimidating. Leave your pearls at home. The Church of Beethoven concept is a “gateway drug” to the world of live classical music — an attempt to build an audience from which all local classical music organizations can benefit.
Wurman’s concept is simple and has really struck a chord in “Albuquirky.” Felix Wurman’s sister, Candida Yoshikai, founded a branch in Raleigh-Durham N.C., performed in Nelson Music Hall at North Carolina State University.
“Chamber music was played in Europe in chambers,” says Yoshikai, herself a violin teacher. “They would gather together in someone’s parlour and play. … Everyone has an affinity to music and the experience of the music of the masters can be so fulfilling to both heart and mind.”
Jean Lotus is director of the Church of Beethoven-Oak Park, a 501©(3) (status pending) not-for-profit organization.