Church of Beethoven founder Felix Wurman (1958-2009) grew up in Oak Park, Ill., 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, Ill., 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. In a high school 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 high school, 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.