Beethoven may be (happily) spinning in his grave.
The 250th anniversary of his birth next year has his music in high rotation at concert halls around the world. And his symphonies are a surprise hit at City Fitness in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, where a classical music spin class set to his works is a consistent sellout on Sunday mornings.
Every stationary bike saddle is occupied by 10:30 a.m. as instructor Steve Schatz sets his symphonic spin class off on a high-intensity, Beethoven-accompanied journey that he narrates — often through Vienna of the early 1800s, where the composer struggled and triumphed.
On a recent Sunday, the boisterous Symphony No. 8 became a saga about the rough-around-the-edges Beethoven pursuing a highborn married woman. The chase proceeded from the palatial Schoenbrunn Palace to the city limits, where her husband was having here spirited away in a high-speed carriage.
Along for the ride were spinners ranging from their 20s to retirement age. After an extremely sweaty hour, they emerged looking happy, endorphins apparently soaring.
“The vibe of the class is completely different to me than any other spin class I’ve been to,” said Kristen Treegoob, 34, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia at Haverford. “Given that it’s Beethoven and not T. Swift screaming at me, you can close your eyes and feel like you really are alone, climbing up the hills” of bucolic locales.
There’s a strong contingent of medical personnel.
Class regular Kimberly Miller, 37, said the class helps her identify with pain and flexibility issues she deals with as a child psychologist in the rheumatology division at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. New to the group is 30-ish, athletic Roman Tsaryk, a transplant from Ukraine — where classical music is more mainstream — who works in science research.
Schatz has the class spinning to a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies in the coming weeks, one Sunday at a time. Sometimes he organizes brunch after his classes, where he’ll guide the students toward wine appreciation — he’s an expert in that, too.
The symphonic spin session is first and foremost a spin class and not a classical music-appreciation seminar. “I look for something that translates the rhythm to a binary pedal stroke," said Schatz, 69. "But also, is it a work that I can spiritually connect with and one that I feel is a conduit to lift people’s spirits?”
The cinematic scenes in his spoken commentary are like choreography, he said, “an expression of what’s going on in the music.”
Schatz chooses classical music recordings that accommodate that approach, such as Riccardo Muti’s muscular Philadelphia Orchestra performances. The exception is the hour-plus Symphony No. 9: For that, he’ll employ the faster recording by Sir John Eliot Gardiner so the class can end on time.
His symphonic spin format has been around town since about 2013, initially in Northern Liberties, and has really come into its own at City Fitness Graduate Hospital, where it’s called Ignite.
Many people in the medical field enjoy classical music to begin with. And Schatz has done his medical homework. Sports medicine expert Costas Karageorghis (famous for his quote "Music is like is a legal drug for athletes”) and the late neurologist Oliver Sacks are his major reference points.
“The coordination of music and movement increase your physical output,” Schatz said. "One reason is the distracting power of music to take you out of the pain and toil of physical activity … moving in time to sound.”
“It saved Sacks’ life," he said. "He was climbing a mountain when he suffered a ruptured tendon. What got him back down ... was the internalized memory of music.”
Sacks used the chant-like “Song of the Volga Boatmen.”
Schatz thought: “Why not tap into that? Why not tap into that with the greatest music ever written?”
His journey to the head of the symphonic spin class started in small-town Illinois (Hoopeston), where he’d return from track-and-field events to a home flooded with classical recordings from the Columbia Record Club. His student years involved stints in Vienna and Salzburg, and a music-history degree from Temple University.
Schatz later cofounded the fund-raising company the Development Center. After selling it, he and his wife concentrated on managing a small collection of properties, giving him time to return to the gym — specifically, Pennsport Athletic Club — to work off his paunch. He became a certified spin instructor in 2008.
When he developed symphonic spin in 2013, one of his biggest learning curves was getting to know classic rock. He mixes that genre in with the symphonies, often as a warm-up or cooldown.
Beyond the Beethoven cycle, his classical range is wide — and thoughtful. He vows never to inflict the complex rhythms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the class, but the composer’s Firebird ballet works fine.
The Brahms Symphony No. 4 is too austere, but his Symphony No. 3 is a keeper. In the final movement, Schatz imagines trying to reach home during a nighttime thunder storm, ending with “the sunshine and early morning dawn.”
His class at City Fitness seems to engender a real sense of belonging. “I can honestly say that this class is one of the major reasons I’ve suddenly realized I really hope to stay in Philadelphia,” said Ilana Nelson-Greenberg, who is at the University of Pennsylvania finishing up a joint medical degree and MBA. “It allows all members of the community to be involved in an extremely un-self-conscious way."
It wouldn’t feel too far-fetched to imagine the Philadelphia Orchestra’s athletically inclined music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin arriving one Sunday morning, ready to sweat along to Beethoven. (Schatz’s advice to everyone, maestros included: Reserve a bicycle in advance.)
And Schatz would love to see a conductor of Nézet-Séguin’s caliber lead the class.
“I would be interested in knowing if … pushing one’s self to anaerobic threshold … allows him a new perspective on the music,” said Schatz.
“I never fully grasped Beethoven’s Eroica symphony [No. 3], but now it’s clear to me — having a ‘spin’ on the narrative and adding choreography to it,” he continues. "With his passion and physicality, I think Yannick could be one of the best cycling instructors on the planet.”