Conductor always had eye on the future

By · 19 Oct 2013
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19 Oct 2013
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19-7-1927 - 30-9-2013

During my student days, I was often reminded of the expression "Glorious John", which referred to the chief conductor of the Halle Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli, a champion of British music who created one of the world's finest orchestral ensembles in the industrial city of Manchester. You could also use this expression to describe John Hopkins, who also conducted in Manchester during his early career for the then BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, (now the BBC Philharmonic).

John was born in the little village of Preston in East Yorkshire in 1927, the son of a railway clerk. At the Manchester College of Music, he studied cello with Haydn Rogerson. His conducting break came in 1949 when, at the age of just 22, he was appointed to the position of assistant conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1952. Even in those early days, his tenure with the BBC SSO was marked by some imaginative programming where he supported and encouraged many young Scottish and English composers.

When Charles Groves left the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in Manchester, Hopkins was asked to take over. At the time, he was the youngest principal conductor of a major UK orchestra, sharing the city with Sir John Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra. John was ambitious to have his own orchestra and in 1957 left England to take up the position of chief conductor with the then New Zealand National Orchestra (now the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). Never content with the duties of just being a music director of a major symphony orchestra, John always had a vision for the big picture, and in particular the development of young musical talent. This was one of his great qualities that endeared John to so many professional musicians who owe their careers to the encouragement he provided in their formative years.

He founded the New Zealand Youth Orchestra in 1959 and was present in 2009 when it celebrated its 50th anniversary. John also inspired the formation of regional symphony orchestras in New Zealand when his visionary document "The Hopkins Report" laid the foundations for the Auckland and Christchurch orchestras. He was the music director of the Auckland Philharmonic in the 1980s.

He left New Zealand in 1963 and was appointed to the position of federal director of music for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, responsible for the complete network of Australian orchestras. This was a period in John's career that saw him at his best.

With passion and unstoppable energy, John changed the face of orchestral music in Australia. Modelled to some degree on the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in London, John created the first Proms series with the Sydney Symphony in 1965, where 20th-century repertoire from across the world was at the core of his programming.

Most of this music had never been heard in Australia, and by ingeniously mixing it with the standard classical repertoire, alongside commissioned new Australian works, he attracted huge audiences, including many young people who queued overnight for tickets.

John's addresses to audiences from the podium and the informality of these concerts gave the Proms a festive atmosphere. His series of concerts in the Melbourne Town Hall, designed this time for younger audiences, introduced a new sector of the community to the joys of classical music. Many of those youngsters are the subscribers of orchestral concerts today.

Of the great classics, John was responsible for introducing such composers as Berlioz, Bruckner, Elgar, Mahler and Lutoslawski to Australian audiences, in addition to fostering the careers of many "locals", including Peter Sculthorpe, Nigel Butterley, Barry Conyngham and Richard Meale.

By this time, John had established himself on the international scene, and it was not long before he was headhunted by the BBC to see if he might take on the role of controller of the then Third Programme (now Radio 3).

I remember a conversation with John many years later when he recalled the BBC interview. Afterwards, the chairman and some members of the panel took him out for dinner, where he was asked, in all seriousness, what "club" was he a member of. Being a northerner, where the only club membership is the local football team on a Saturday afternoon, this pompous southern query was the deciding factor, and the next day he withdrew his application and returned to Australia.

In 1974, he became the inaugural dean of the School of Music at the newly formed Victorian College of the Arts (now the University of Melbourne Faculty of Music of the VCA).

Again, this was a very productive and creative time for John. He continued his international conducting career and also brought many new initiatives in his role as dean. Many world-class artists became regular visiting teachers, and the VCA soon became a centre of excellence in the southern hemisphere.

It was during this time that John developed a close relationship with New Zealand soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, when he became her music director for all her concert appearances in the Pacific region, and also some of her opera performances.

Between 1986 and 1991, John was the director of the NSW Conservatorium of Music and continued to travel the world conducting. He was very influential later, too, in the setting up of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) in Melbourne, and in more recent times was the professor of conducting at the University of Melbourne and was still active with his conducting commitments with youth orchestras until the time of his death.

I have been a friend and colleague of John's for almost 40 years, and during that time I have always had the utmost respect for his passion and vision for the future of the music industry and his love of young, "rising stars" through his work in education.

His energy was boundless and he loved nothing more than to have a full diary, even years ahead. Although the benefits to the profession were considerable, I am sure it took its toll on family life.

Despite some health issues in recent years, John never got "old", and his love for his next project - whether it be his latest conducting student, a date with a youth orchestra or being invited to assist with auditions - kept him ever-youthful. He was pragmatic about life, religion and politics, and could offer an opinion on almost any subject.

When John meets St Peter's Holy Symphony Orchestra, it won't be too long before he becomes the assistant conductor (I'll leave it up to your imagination as to who the chief might be). Farewell and thank you, Glorious John.
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