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13 August 2009

John Hopkins - The Point of the Baton

John Hopkins with Stravinsky, studying the score, Wellington, 1961 Image: John Hopkins with Stravinsky, studying the score, Wellington, 1961  
© Tom Shanahan

William Cottam writes about his friendship with conductor John Hopkins and their work on the book The Point of the Baton (Lyrebird Press, 2009).

John Hopkins once told me no one would ever understand or believe the experience we had there – the intense danger in the South African townships, the vast beauty of the old land, the African immersion into Western music through centuries of Christian missionaries, the Messiah sung in Zulu. We worked eighty-hour weeks taking the Natal Philharmonic Orchestra where it had never been, to the Townships of KwaZulu Natal, to more than 100,000 people in eight months, who had not heard an orchestra under the rule of apartheid.

Hopkins with a hospital choir in Soweto, South Africa, in 1979.After a week of introducing music to students and factory workers often sitting in the sun and dust, we would retreat to the nearest game park to rest. Behind a rondavel in the Unfolozi Game Park, keeping an eye on the warthogs that darted in and out to the brush nearby, I asked John how he came to music, about his childhood in England, and his experiences in New Zealand and Australia. As a writer I have an ear for a good story and grabbed a tape recorder as soon as John began to speak.

Writing is often a brutal exercise, one of unrelenting integrity and endurance, and in this particular case over a period of years and the long distances that separate New York and Hong Kong from Australia. But John is an irresistible storyteller, of English tradition, with wit and charm, the wisdom of age and sometimes with biting critique.

John’s stories were anecdotal, personal and surprisingly candid – a boy during World War II in Great Britain, his unprecedented rise from his first cello lesson at sixteen to Chief Conductor of the BBC at age 24. He told of his time as 'Mr. Music' of New Zealand and his ten years as Federal Director of ABC music, of the life and death of the Sydney Proms phenomenon and the '60s generation, of founding the School of Music at the Victorian College of the Arts, and directing the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

John recounted his experience with the divas and artists he conducted, the drama on stage and behind, with Stravinsky, Te Kanawa, Ashkenazy, Arrau, Menuhin, Kodály, Oistrakh, of conducting in Moscow during the Soviet Union era, in China under Mao. He also related the shattering experience of faith in Christian Science following the death of his wife from cancer.

John Hopkins and William CottamI am not a professional musician, although I fell in love with and learned to play the clarinet during the process of writing, but in writing John’s story I have of necessity become acquainted with many of the musicians and artists with whom he performed – students, past and present, the youth of national music camps, as well as orchestral musicians (he has conducted more than 300 of the world’s orchestras), and fellow conductors – and the phenomenal range of music he conducted.

In this telling John has captured the important historical perspective over the past half century of the sometimes-reluctant development of music as it moved across Australia and New Zealand.

Further links

Purchase The Point of the Baton by John Hopkins (with William Cottam) from the AMC Shop.

Subjects discussed by this article:

William Cottam lives with his wife in New York City and Ivins, Utah, and is the author of several essays and memoirs. He first met John Hopkins in 1994 in South Africa and they have been firm friends ever since.


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Stopping the show
I sometimes wonder if, in my youth and brashness,m I may have been the first to ever ask Maestro Hopkins to go back to the start. We were shooting a documentary for the NZ National Film Unit at the annual Cambridge Music School, and the cameraman missed the start of a rehearsal of the prescribed group performance of "Carmina Burana" I've ruminated on the awful breach of etiquette for many years since then! Regards - Ross