By Scott MacClelland
RENAISSANCE MUSIC and Stravinsky together strikes me as a winning program. Santa Cruz Chorale conductor Christian Grube says “In theory,” then admits, “we will find out.” This weekend Grube conducts the Chorale in two performances at Holy Cross Church. Some of the pieces include instruments, others are a cappella.
Grube is sure of one thing: how to train and conduct a choir. He is emeritus professor of choral conducting at the Berlin University of the Arts in his native Germany. His longstanding artistic goals include impeccable intonation, a broad range of dynamic expression, an ability to interpret diverse styles—as the program at hand attests—and beautiful sound.
So how did he wind up with the Santa Cruz Chorale? “I’m not really sure,” he told me. “The board president, Niel Warren, called me and when we met he talked me into it.” That was in 2006.
Grube was born in Hanover in 1934. As a child of the war, he was sent to live in a small Austrian village far away from the Allied bombing raids. “I started school there.” His guardians “had lost a son and they wanted to keep me.” After the war, “My mother had a hard time getting me back. I was ten or eleven.” Near Hamelin, Grube met “my first American. He was a black person, and he gave me chewing gum. He was very nice. He tried to tell me to chew but don’t swallow. I didn’t know any English and he had no German.”
It was Grube’s mother who laid the foundation for his life in music “by singing to me every night.” He studied at the Hochschule für Musik and at the Kirchenmusikschule in Hanover where he majored in conducting, voice, flute, organ, and Renaissance instruments. “I also learned a lot from Nikolaus Harnoncourt, when I invited him to do workshops at the Hochschule in Berlin when I had begun teaching there. We were colleagues.” (Harnoncourt, 1929-2016, had a worldwide reputation as one of the greatest conductor of the 20th century.) “I heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing live.” He explains, “When most singers heard him they became discouraged. But it had the opposite influence on me. I had to sing.”
In 1964 Grube was chosen for a new position at St. Michael’s Church, Hildesheim. He held a dual teaching position at the Gymnasium Andreanum until 1973. His reputation there earned him an invitation to the Hochschule der Künste—later the University of the Arts—in Berlin. “In the ‘70s I organized workshops for Harnoncourt.” In ’73, Grube was made a professor of liturgy, hymnology and choral conducting there, along with related musical activities for both government and church, including official state functions and travel to other countries.
Under his leadership, the two choirs, Staats- und Domchor, frequently toured North and South America, the former Soviet Union, Egypt, Israel, Korea, Taiwan and Africa, in addition to all of the European countries. These tours included lectures and workshops, as well as radio and television productions. His choirs have performed with such major conductors as Herbert von Karajan, Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Chailly and Mauricio Kagel, and with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Berliner Ensemble and the Komische Oper. They also collaborated with Fischer-Dieskau, Edita Gruberová, and Thomas Quasthoff, who began his singing career in Grube’s children’s choir in Hildesheim.
In 1975 Grube founded the Chamber Choir of the University of the Arts in Berlin. In 1989, “My boys’ choir was the first to visit Moscow from Berlin. It was part of a benefit tour to support the survivors of the 1988 Azerbaijan earthquake.” Cold War tensions were constant,” Grube said. “I never lived in such an intense culture. So much insecurity.” As a symbolic gesture Grube brought along a piece of the by then torn-down Berlin Wall. Also in 1989, Arvo Pärt dedicated his new—and now well-known—Magnificat to Grube and his boys’ choir after they won the first prize in the German National Choral Competition.
In 1964, in Switzerland, Grube met and married his wife Karen, a San Francisco native who now writes program notes for the SC Chorale and “is my best critic.”
Today the couple divides their year between Berlin and Santa Cruz—including other musical activities around the San Francisco Bay Area. A list of Grube students who have gone on to fully professional musical careers is very long.
The program for this weekend includes Renaissance pieces by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Jacobus Gallus, Heinrich Schütz, Heinrich Isaac and Hans Leo Hassler. Music by Benjamin Britten and others will also be heard.