John Hopkins: Conductor who worked with the BBC in the 1950s then forged a new career in Australia and New Zealand


To classical music lovers of a certain age, the words “BBC Northern Orchestra, conducted by John Hopkins”, spoken by the veteran BBC North Region announcer Tom Naisby, remain a vivid memory of 1950s wireless listening.

Hopkins held this position from 1952-57, after which he largely disappeared from British musical life on being appointed conductor of the New Zealand National Orchestra. He claimed to have spotted the advertisement by chance, put in an application with little expectation of success, and then been surprised to have got the job. But his BBC training was clearly to his advantage, for before going to Manchester he was assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra.

John Hopkins was born in Yorkshire and studied the cello with Haydn Rogerson at the Royal Manchester College of Music and later conducting, with Joseph Lewis at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and Carlo Zecchi at the Mozarteum, Salzburg. Initial experience was gained as “apprentice conductor” of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, the outcome of winning the YSO’s first conducting scholarship in 1948 while still in the RAF; from 1946-8 he played the horn and cello in the RAF Central Band and Orchestra, as well as conducting student ensembles.

The scholarship lasted for a year, followed by his two BBC appointments and then in 1957 his move to the Antipodes. He returned to Britain from time to time, and an advertisement for a concert in London in 1959, during a three-month tour of Europe and Russia, quotes the distinguished Viennese conductor Josef Krips predicting that Hopkins “will become one of the few great conductors in the world”.

In 1963 Hopkins moved from New Zealand to Australia to become federal director of music of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a post he held for 10 years. He toured Britain with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1965 including a Commonwealth Arts Festival concert at the Royal Festival Hall in the September. In 1966, in the presence of the Queen Mother, he conducted Berlioz’s Requiem for the fourth Adelaide Festival of the Arts, with 400 singers from five choirs, the South Australian Symphony Orchestra and contingents from two bands.

Hopkins introduced New Zealand and Australian audiences to works by such composers as Berlioz and Shostakovich through broadcasts and, in the 1960s, the Sydney Proms, which he inaugurated. These were, to quote a contemporary report, “a wild box-office success, with subscriptions being regularly sold out and queues stretching city blocks for tickets”. The focus of the Sydney Proms on new music attracted new young audiences, and indigenous composers in particular had reason to be grateful to Hopkins: “He was crucial to my life and career, and to me getting a hearing as a composer”, said Peter Sculthorpe. Recordings followed live broadcasts and performances, and as well as all three symphonies by Douglas Lilburn, and two discs of music by Percy Grainger, there was new music by Nigel Butterley, David Ahern, Barry Conyngham, Jennifer Fowler, Richard Meale, and others.

When in 2011 John Hopkins received an Art Music Award, the composer Benjamin Northey, presenting him, described him as “a firm believer in grass-roots community music making … a bold innovator who believes in the art of possibility. Where it seems there is no way, John has a knack of finding one. His innate musicality, his strong-willed northern English work ethic and his visionary and inspirational leadership have changed the musical landscape in Australia and helped shape our cultural history”.

His commitment to nurturing young talent continued throughout his career, and for the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973 he commissioned no fewer than 23 new works, and was also influential as a board member of the Commonwealth Assistance to Australian Composers scheme. He also helped to establish the Darwin Symphony Orchestra and the Great Barrier Reef Orchestra and worked with the National Music Camp and the Melbourne Youth Orchestra. In 1973 he was appointed dean of the school of music in the Victoria College of Arts, Melbourne and in 1986 (until 1993) director of the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music. He was appointed OBE in 1970, received the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977 and, perhaps belatedly, was appointed Member of the Order of Australia (AM) earlier this year.

John Hopkins has been described by his colleagues as “a real visionary” and “a truly iconic figure in Australian music”. “He tried to reinforce the idea of music being a force for good in the world”, said Ben Northey. “He just wanted to make the world a better place through music”, said another.

John Raymond Hopkins, conductor, educator and administrator: born Preston, near Hull 19 July 1927; OBE 1970; married firstly Rosemary Blamey (deceased; five daughters), 1987 Geraldene Scott; died Melbourne 30 September 2013.

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