Ludwig impersonator: Fred Brandstrader plays the piano on the Church of Beethoven float during the 2011 Fourth of July Parade in Oak Park.J. GEIL/Photo Editor

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.

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Who was Felix Wurman?

Church of Beethoven founder Felix Wurman (1958-2009) grew up in Oak Park, the son of European immigrants Hans and Brenda Wurman, who played "so much music in Oak Park," says Candida Wurman Yoshikai, Felix's sister. The Wurmans were a musical family — Hans' father performed with Brahms in Vienna. They moved to Chicago after Hans escaped from Vienna during World War II. He met and married Brenda, a violinist, in London. The family lived in Chicago's Burnside neighborhood at 87th and Kimbark from 1953 to 1966, working as musicians, and even hosting small, intimate chamber concerts themselves.

While in Oak Park, Felix's father Hans played keyboard, piano and organ in many venues, including Grace Lutheran Church, and several local temples. He also recorded on WFMT and performed in musicals, such as Bye, Bye Birdie. As a salesman for Allen organs, Hans acquired the first Moog synthesizer in Chicago, his daughter says. In 1969, RCA released The Moog strikes Bach an album of Wurman performing pieces by Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Paganini on the synthesizer.

Felix's mother, Brenda, was an early pioneer of the Suzuki violin teaching methods who taught more than 100 students in Oak Park and Chicago six days a week. When she died suddenly in 1988, "more than 600 people came to her memorial service," says Yoshikai. According to an obituary, Brenda also donated lessons and musical instruments to inner-city children.

The Wurman siblings all chose musical careers. Felix's brother Alex is a Hollywood soundtrack composer whose credits include music for March of the Penguins and Temple Grandin. Sister Nina produces and composes music for a theater in Heidelberg, Germany. Candida Wurman Yoshikai teaches violin.

Felix was always a visionary, his sister recalls. At 12, the curly-haired musician made his cello debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When adolescence

rolled around, he chose to attend the "XP: Experimental Program" an alternative high school offered by Oak Park and River Forest High School.

XP was a so-called "Free School," based on the "Summerhill" educational principles of A.S. Neill. In a science class, Felix was exposed to Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome as a form of inexpensive housing.

"He developed a dome fixation — he built one in our backyard," says Yoshikai.

The dome concept would later bring him fame in Europe and even help win him the British equivalent of a Grammy. After graduating from OPRF, Felix was offered a scholarship to Julliard School of Music, which he declined, choosing instead to go to England and study for two years with British cellist Jacqueline DuPres.

Beginning in 1977 and into the 1980s, Felix was playing chamber music in Britain when friends joked that they could bring their music to more people by building a "portable concert hall." Felix constructed a geodesic dome tent that accommodated 200 concertgoers. His quartet — renamed "Domus" — performed at music festivals throughout Europe and won a Gramophone Award (the British "Grammy") in 1980 for best Chamber Music Recording.

In his 2009 obituary, the quartet's pianist remembered, "Felix was probably the only person in the world who could have got me to run about in the rain carrying heavy boxes full of aluminum tubes. When things got tough, as they soon did, he rallied us all with his heartfelt cry of, 'It must never not be fun!'" Domus experimented with videotaping performances and even providing food for audience members. According to his sister, Felix also developed a wheeled conveyance for his cello that hitched to a bicycle.

He eventually returned to Chicago, where he got a cello gig at Lyric Opera. But when a friend invited him to Albuquerque, he moved west. He resurrected the dome briefly in Albuquerque, and then started the Church of Beethoven. The concept quickly gained national recognition from the L.A. Times and NPR.

The "church" moved to the Kosmos, a converted warehouse arts-space with chandeliers. Inspired by Fuller's "doing more with less" concept, Felix, always a connoisseur of coffee, offered free cappuccino and even complementary massages before the concert.

"I honestly believe we're working on a spiritual level. We're working on a healing level," Wurman told an interviewer in 2009.

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Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...