Less than 24 hours after his arrival in Juneau in 1970, Dan Hopson instinctively knew he’d found a home in Southeast. Physically, however, it was a bit of a rocky landing.
On his first day in town, straight off the ferry, the adventurous young biologist secured a temporary position with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, even though he had no real plans to stay; on day two, he climbed aboard a float plane bound for Admiralty Island to meet his new boss, local naturalist Bob Armstrong.
As the small plane gained altitude, his body quickly let him know that it hadn’t agreed to the trip.
“I had never flown before on a small plane – and I was nervous about the whole thing,” Hopson said. “I promptly got sick, and the only airbag we had was the pilot’s hat.”
When he got off the plane in Hood Bay, lunch-in-hat-in-hand, he was greeted by a very doubtful looking Armstrong.
“He looked at me like, ‘I don’t know if I really want this guy or not!’” Hopson said with a laugh. “It was a great introduction.”
In spite of the rough start, Hopson was hooked by the end of the day. More than four decades later, he’s still here – and still seeking out new adventures. Last month he released his first CD, “Solo Classical Guitar,” a project he has been working on for three years. The CD features a collection of his favorite pieces, many of which he’s been perfecting over the past six years during his weekend dinner-hour performances at the Gold Room at the Baranof Hotel. Though it’s been a lot of work, Hopson said it’s well worth it.
“To pull it all together on a CD was really rewarding,” he said.
The CD is largely a Juneau product: It was recorded and mastered at Studio A downtown, and involved the work of both Albert McDonnell and Besty Sims (Hopson did his own editing). The cover also features local work: a vibrant painting by artist Constance Baltuck called “Bright Meadow,” which Hopson said he was thrilled to be able to use. And local artist Matthew Knutson did the graphic design work.
In compiling the music, Hopson drew from his Gold Room repertoire, focusing on pieces that he likes and felt confident in playing. His tastes are wide-ranging – from Renaissance masters to Afro-Cuban traditional.
“Maybe I went overboard on the spread,” Hopson said. “When I put it up on CD Baby, one of the things they asked was ‘what’s your genre?’ I was totally baffled.”
Part of the reason for the wide selection is that Hopson is constantly learning new pieces – maybe three or four a month – to keep things interesting, and he often follows up on recommendations from his students, who range in age from 15 to 70. He also seeks out recommendations from musician friends, and sometimes learns pieces to accompany local art groups; he learned one of the tracks on the CD, “Sarabande,” for Opera To Go’s production of “Dido and Aeneas.”
So far, CD sales are brisk. Online Hopson has already caught the attention of a listener in the Netherlands, and local sales have already exceeded his expectations; last month’s public market proved to be a great venue.
Though he’s been playing classical guitar for 35 years, Hopson was originally a folk guitarist -- and self-proclaimed “closet musician” -- who played a steel string. He made the switch to classical a few years after his arrival in Juneau in response to a request he couldn’t refuse: Local violinist Linda Rosenthal asked if he’d accompany her on music tours around the state as part of a “Shows to Go” program organized through the schools. Rosenthal had been traveling with Juneau pianist Elizabeth Evans, but after a bad experience with a piano that didn’t work properly, Rosenthal was looking for a change. Hopson knew he couldn’t miss the opportunity.
“I realized, boy, this is a huge step up for me,” he said.
After transcribing the piano music to create his guitar accompaniment, he dived in, learning the repertoire as fast as he could. The pair traveled all around the state in the late 1970s, performing in logging camps and school gyms in towns and villages from Savoonga to Valdez, Naknek to Bethel.
After two years, Hopson, eager to continue to hone his skills, headed to Montana State to take a master class with Christopher Parkening, one of the world’s most highly regarded classical guitarists. When he returned to town, he didn’t have the opportunity to play as much music as he would have liked -- he took a full time job as a biologist with the state and soon started a family, raising two girls, Morgan and Lauren, with his wife, Martha, in Douglas. But since his retirement five years ago, he’s welcomed the chance to rededicate himself to his instrument. He now teaches music at the University of Alaska Southeast and leads private lessons out of his home, participates in local performances and plays at gatherings, and is a regular performer at the Gold Room, a job he says he really enjoys.
“If you’re a musician who likes to play and then 300 people jump up and down and clap, that’s not your gig,” he said. “I’m usually just in amongst the hubbub of the clatter of dishes. But it’s individual. every now and then you get somebody who really locks in. It’s great fun.”
Those who have dined at the Gold Room on a Friday or Saturday will no doubt recognize some of the tracks on the CD. Some of Hopson’s favorites are a traditional Afro-Cuban lullaby, which he first heard performed by Parkening, and José Merlin’s “Evocacion,” as well as Luiz Bonfá’s “Samba de Orpheu” and “Manhã de Carnaval.” Other tracks include Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which Hopson said is among the more technically challenging pieces, and Erik Satie’s “Gymnopeide No. 3.” More than nine countries and four centuries are represented in the 23 tracks.
Still, there were pieces he held back for fear of making the mix too eclectic. Does that mean he has plans for a second CD?
“When I was in the process of (making this CD), no – I was just so busy and my head was going to explode at times. But having set up all this infrastructure, maybe. I’m already starting to think about it.”
Hopson’s CD is available at the Baranof, at the JACC, the state museum, Hearthside Books, the UAS bookstore and online at www.cdbaby.com/CD/danhopson.