Felix Wurman passing the donation basket at the Church of Beethoven (photograph by Morgan Petroski for the Albuquerque Journal)
|Birth name||Felix Wurman|
|Born||October 27, 1958|
Chicago, Illinois, United States
|Died||December 26, 2009 (aged 51)|
Hillsborough, North Carolina, United States
Wurman began playing the cello at age seven and gave his first public performance, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at age 12. He was invited to attend the Juilliard School, but chose to study in Europe under the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Du Pré, who was no longer able to play due to multiple sclerosis, taught Wurman for two years.
While in England, Wurman focused on chamber music and performed with Open Chamber Music at Prussia Cove in Cornwall, England. Wurman performed with musicians including Hungarian violinist Sandor Vegh and Johannes Goritski. In the early 1980s, Wurman was one of the founders of Domus, a chamber music group that performed in its own portable geodesic dome tent built by Wurman. The group, originally consisting of Wurman and Richard Lester on cello, Krysia Osostowicz on violin, Robin Ireland on viola, Michael Faust on flute, and Susan Tomes on piano, began at the International Musicians' Seminars at Prussia Cove. By using a portable concert hall that could be erected by musicians themselves with seating for an audience of 200, Domus sought to build a broader audience for chamber music and performed in unconventional locations. Domus participated in the European festival circuit and later won two German Record Critics' Prizes and a Gramophone Award for Best Chamber Music Recording for its recording of Fauré: Piano Quartets 1 & 2.
Tomes, who went on to become a noted concert pianist and writer, described Wurman as an "animateur of genius" whose love of music, fun and adventure "made people want to be in his gang." Tomes described the founding of Domus:
"We wanted to find a way of making music that was less formal and intimidating than we were beginning to experience as young professionals playing in orthodox concert halls. When we started discussing how to create our own more intimate concerts, someone jokingly said that we should build a portable concert hall. Felix was several steps ahead of us, then as at many other times. As an American school student he had come across Buckminster Fuller's designs for a geodesic dome, and he declared that if we were to have a portable concert hall, it must be in the shape of a dome. With typical enterprise and energy he set about building us a geodesic dome. It wasn't the most practical idea, but the beauty of the white dome galvanised lots of young musicians into helping to make it a reality. ... 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 aluminium tubes. When things got tough, as they soon did, he rallied us all with his heartfelt cry of, 'It must never not be fun!!'"
Return to the United States
Wurman returned to Europe frequently and studied in Amsterdam under Anner Bylsma. Bylsma encouraged Wurman to build a five-string cello so that he could perform a broad repertoire of transcriptions, consisting mostly of works for violin. Wurman performed concerts of the Sonatas and partitas for solo violin at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and at the Cultural Center in Chicago, both of which were simultaneously broadcast on radio.
Wurman later moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico where he joined the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. He also continued his interest in chamber music, performing for the Placitas Artist Series, East Mountain Artists Series, Corrales Cultural Arts Council and Albuquerque Chamber Soloists. Wurman also formed the Noisy Neighbors Chamber Orchestra, made up of musicians from the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. In September 2000, when the Noisy Neighbors began performing under a 200-seat geodesic dome in a parking lot at Cedar Crest, Wurman told the Albuquerque Journal that the new group was a continuation of the Domus concept—a group with a mobile concert hall that would perform any kind of classical music wherever possible.
Church of Beethoven
In early 2007, after performing at a church service, Wurman was inspired to create the "Church of Beethoven." Wurman noted it was not the theology he liked; it was "the ecstasy of the music, and the warmth of the parishioners enjoying it together." Wurman came up with an idea: "How about a church that has music as its principal element, rather than as an afterthought?" Wurman recruited musicians from the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, and they began playing Sunday concerts in an abandoned gas station off old Route 66. Wurman called the Sunday concerts the Church of Beethoven. Wurman said he founded the church to help people "find spirituality through culture." Wurman named the church after Beethoven because the composer "poured all that spirituality that he couldn't find a place for in the traditional church, he poured it straight into his art." Wurman believed there were many nonreligious people "looking to be uplifted on a Sunday morning." The services also included poetry readings, and one poet who participated described Wurman's goal in forming the Church of Beethoven as follows: "Wurman wanted to foster the same sense of communal experience one can have at a church, but without the dogma."
The Albuquerque Journal described the latest entry into the city's community of churches:
"Traveling south on Fourth Street from Albuquerque's Central Avenue, you'll encounter the Episcopal Church of St. John, the First United Methodist Church, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the Potter's House -- Christian Fellowship Ministries. At Fourth and Pacific SW, add a new 'church' to the list. It's the 'Church of Beethoven,' the idea of entrepreneur-cellist Felix Wurman. Wurman has been producing an hourlong mix of music, poetry and readings for the past 12 Sunday mornings at the arts venue called The Filling Station."
The Church of Beethoven also received extensive coverage in the national media and was profiled by, among other outlets, National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times. NPR's Washington correspondent, Brigid McCarthy, reported on the church as follows:
"Albuquerque, N.M., is no different from any other American city, in terms of its religious life; you've got churches, synagogues, a couple of Unitarian congregations and a mosque. But an abandoned gas station along old Route 66 is the unlikely home for another kind of Sunday-morning service, and it's one that you won't find anywhere else. It's called the Church of Beethoven. Felix Wurman isn't a rabbi, priest or preacher. He plays the cello. He didn't feel at home in church, because he's not religious. But he says he also felt that there was something missing in formal concert halls where he performs. 'One of the things you do as a professional classical musician is play church jobs,' Wurman says, 'and I always felt that this is so wonderful, all this music, the collection of people, this beautiful room. But there was something lacking.'"
McCarthy described the services as follows: "It's sort of like a variety show, with poetry readings, group singing, silence and music. But he's trying to make it more than that: a community, a spiritual place, like a church for people who don't go to church." The Los Angeles Times described the church this way:
"It is a church without preaching, and without prayer. At its Sunday morning services there is something spiritual, all right, but it doesn't have to do with Allah, or Buddha, or God. Instead, it comes from music, from passionate renditions of works composed by Brahms and Bach and, of course, Beethoven -- for whom the church is named."
In 2008, the Church of Beethoven relocated from the filling station to a new home in a renovated warehouse in downtown Albuquerque which has been described as "rather cathedral-like, with warm red walls, vaulted wood ceilings and stained glass windows." A short documentary film about Felix and the Church of Beethoven by Brad Stoddard and Anthony Della Flora was completed and is for sale on Amazon CreateSpace https://www.createspace.com/291475 on DVD
Cancer and death
Wurman was diagnosed with bladder cancer in November 2008 and underwent surgery in the spring 2009. When the cancer returned and spread to his bone, Wurman left Albuquerque in the fall 2009 to be near his sister in North Carolina and to receive treatment there. The Church of Beethoven continued to thrive even after Wurman's departure as musicians, poets and participants worked to keep the concept alive. One week before Wurman's death, the Church of Beethoven conducted a fundraiser to help pay for Wurman's medical care; the event featured Schubert's Octet in F major with poets giving readings in brief intervals between the six movements. Poets Tony Hunt and Lisa Gill read poems centered on the themes of time, change, and friendship. The service was intended as an opportunity to demonstrate the community's appreciation for Wurman's life and commitment.
Wurman died of complications from cancer.
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- David Steinberg (2008-04-28). "A New Church: Weekly event held at The Filling Station features music, poetry and readings". Albuquerque Journal.
- Brigid McCarthy. "Church Preaches The Music Of Beethoven". National Public Radio.
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