LYNN NEARY, host:
Albuquerque 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 of Albuquerque's newest house of worship, and it's one that you won't find anywhere else. Brigid McCarthy reports from Albuquerque.
BRIGID MCCARTHY: Felix Wurman isn't a rabbi, priest, or preacher. He plays the cello.
Mr. FELIX WURMAN (Classical Cellist): One of the things you do as a professional classical musician is you play, quote, unquote, "church jobs." And I always felt that isn't this wonderful? All this music, and all this collection of people, and this beautiful room and everything. But there was something lacking.
MCCARTHY: He didn't feel at home in church because he's not religious. But he also felt there was something missing in the formal concert halls where he performs. Wurman is a member of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Before that, he studied with the legendary British cellist Jacqueline du Pre, toured with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and performed with Chicago's Lyric Opera Orchestra.
Mr. WURMAN: All the time I was doing all of those things, I was searching for a form of entertainment that went beyond entertainment and went beyond the concert.
MCCARTHY: And last February, he created it. 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. He calls it the Church of Beethoven.
Mr. WURMAN: Really, the idea is to find spirituality through culture, through the cultural gifts that so many people have suffered for and created over so many generations. There's so much information there that's useful.
MCCARTHY: It's Sunday morning, and a crowd is gathering at the Filling Station, an old gas station that's been converted into a theater. It's in one of Albuquerque's oldest neighborhoods, surrounded by small brown adobe houses, a few blocks from the hulking shell of the old Santa Fe rail yards. Coffee is a major part of the liturgy here - good coffee. Two cheerful baristas serve everyone free espresso in brightly colored ceramic cups.
Unidentified Barista: Hi there.
Unidentified Woman #1: How are you doing?
Unidentified Barista: Good. How are you?
Unidentified Woman #1: Excellent.
Unidentified Barista: What can we make for you?
Unidentified Woman #1: Vanilla latte.
Unidentified Barista: Coming up. Vanilla latte.
MCCARTHY: Laura Motter and her husband Nathaniel rode here on their tandem bike. They've been attending faithfully since last spring.
Ms. LAURA MOTTER (Congregant, Church of Beethoven): The first time I came, I just heard about it from a friend of mine who is a poet who reads here sometimes. And we're just kind of blown away by what you can hear in a gas station in Albuquerque.
(Soundbite of audience applause)
Unidentified Man: Hello. Thanks for coming everybody. We've got a perfect amount of people.
Unidentified Woman #2: Yup.
Unidentified Man: We've got every chair full...
MCCARTHY: The audience sits on plain wooden risers. The cement floor has been scrubbed clean of oil stains, but the exposed brick and cinderblock walls still look as if they were blackened by exhaust. Wurman doesn't always program classical music, but this morning the church lives up to its name with a Beethoven string quartet.
(Soundbite of Beethoven string quartet)
Mr. WURMAN: His music, I think, is really the most important reason I selected him as the figurehead because he really took a lot of chances with his music in terms of the emotional content of it. He just doesn't give you any notion of what's coming. And then, all of a sudden, he's in a different mood altogether. I just think that that's just so human.
MCCARTHY: Wurman also points out that, unlike Bach, Beethoven didn't write that much church music. In fact, he rarely, if ever, went to church.
Mr. WURMAN: He poured all that spirituality that he couldn't find a place for it within the traditional church, he poured it straight into his art. And that's what most of the great creators, it seems, did. And so I can just go there and grab that incredible crystallized piece of beauty and present it to people.
MCCARTHY: Dwayne Longabaugh has a subscription to the symphony, but he comes to the Church of Beethoven for a different musical experience.
Mr. DWAYNE LONGABAUGH (Congregant, Church of Beethoven): You're sitting three feet from the musician, and you can actually feel the music, instead of just hearing it. The lower notes of the music actually reverberate in your chest.
MCCARTHY: Felix Wurman refuses to charge admission because churches don't do that. But, like churches, he has expenses to cover, so he asks for donations. Sometimes he comes out ahead. Sometimes he doesn't. But in just nine months, he has built a devoted Sunday-morning following and a community. Wurman is determined to see his church survive and prosper.
Mr. WURMAN: I have struggled so long in the arts. It's like you're just - you're crying in the wilderness. You're saying, well, look at all this incredible music that really isn't getting out there to the extent that it should. And my goal is to disseminate all of this wonderful art because people don't know that much about it. I know there's an audience for it.
MCCARTHY: Felix Wurman doesn't want the Church of Beethoven to grow into a megachurch. He thinks that would destroy the intimacy that makes it meaningful. But he'd like the idea to get big and spread, with churches of Bach, Schubert, Mahler, and Bernstein sprouting up. For NPR News, I'm Brigid McCarthy in Albuquerque.