The Australian conductor and founder of Queensland Youth Orchestras, John Curro has died at the age of 86.

“Mr Curro was admitted to hospital on Wednesday morning 6 November and passed away in the afternoon,” Queensland Youth Orchestras said in a statement.

“John Curro inspired many thousands of musicians and music lovers,” the statement said. “His impact on Australia’s orchestral and music education sectors has been extraordinary. Our thoughts and sympathies are with the Curro family.”

John CurroJohn Curro (1932–2019)

Born in Cairns in 1932, Curro was introduced to music by his father, who played the violin, but initially trained as an architect at the University of Queensland before making a career in music. He founded Queensland Youth Orchestras in 1966, going on to conduct its ensembles for more than 50 years, and completing 13 international tours. With Queensland Youth Orchestras he established the National Youth Concerto Competition – which boasts amongst its winners Richard Tognetti and Ray Chen – in 1976.

He also conducted many of Australia’s professional orchestras and opera and ballet seasons, as well as the Australian Youth Orchestra and ensembles around the world, including the London Virtuosi, Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, the Bavarian Youth Orchestra, the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (where he was Principal Guest Conductor) and more.

“John Curro’s passion and total commitment to the QYO has been his life’s work and he has inspired hundreds of students, many of whom have had or are enjoying illustrious careers,” wrote Suzannah Conway in Limelight in 2017, as Queensland Youth Orchestras celebrated more than half a century of music-making. “His will be a lasting legacy to the classical music world in Australia.”

“John’s vision, which had humble beginnings, has sustained the organisation’s spirit through a combination of hard work and dedication, through good as well as difficult times,” composer Richard Mills told Limelight in 2017. “His life has been one of tireless service to the community and has touched and enriched the lives of so many Australians. Finally, its magnitude transcends any possible description.”

“John Curro believed in us all,” clarinettist and composer Paul Dean told Limelight at the time. “John always managed to be encouraging whilst being stern, and he always expected the best that you could give – or better in some cases. He is the perfect blend of a ‘pedagogue’ and he is someone who I have modelled much of my own teaching style upon. The remarkable opportunities that he gave all of us seem incredible looking back, but at the time we just went along for this luxurious ride.”

Curro’s accolades include honorary doctorates from the University of Queensland and Griffith University, a Centenary Medal and the Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award in 2001, and a Don Banks Fellowship in 2003. He was appointed a Member of the British Empire in 1981, a Member of the Order of Australia in 1995, and was honoured with a Queensland Greats Award in 2016.

Tributes have been flowing in on social media for the beloved conductor and mentor. “Vale John Curro, founding Music Director and Conductor of the Queensland Youth Orchestras for over 50 years,” Queensland chamber orchestra Camerata said in a statement on Facebook. “Many of Camerata’s musicians have performed in or had a connection with QYO, and our group includes several former Concertmasters, Principal and section players.”

“We join thousands of Australian musicians who have benefited enormously from their contact with John and QYO,” the statement said. “Our heart goes out to our recent guest artists Sarah and Monica Curro, to their siblings and extended family, and especially to John’s wife, Carmel.”

“We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of John Curro AM MBE,” the Queensland Symphony Orchestra said. “John inspired countless musicians and has left a profound legacy. We send our thoughts to John’s family and friends.”

“A true hero of music in Australia, he has touched so many lives and inspired so many musicians,” wrote pianist Jayson Gillham on Facebook. “I am always surprised how many of Australia’s instrumentalists were trained through the Queensland Youth Orchestras and have made their careers all across Australia and around the world. His legacy is vast.”

There will be a private family funeral and a memorial service is being planned at a date to be advised, Queensland Youth Orchestras said.