Willem van Otterloo was born in 1907. He studied medicine briefly in Utrecht and played saxophone in the student dance orchestra Tower Town Band.
He subsequently studied cello and composition at the Amsterdam Conservatory. One of his first large-scale compositions, the Third Orchestral Suite (1932), won first prize in a competition held by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. When conductor Willem Mengelberg withdrew due to illness, the young composer was invited to conduct the work himself.
In 1932 Van Otterloo joined the cello section of the Utrechts Stedelijk Orkest (Utrecht Municipal Orchestra); in 1933 he became the orchestra’s assistant conductor and in 1937 was promoted to principal conductor. From 1946-1948 he also conducted at De Nederlandse Opera, and from 1947-1949 was conductor of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1949 he took up the post of chief conductor of the The Hague Philharmonic (Residentie Orkest), at that time a lacklustre ensemble. He is credited with boosting the quality of the orchestra in a remarkably short period of time. Let us not forget what it meant in those days to be a chief conductor: eight months a year with the orchestra, active participation in the orchestra’s organization and structure, and the responsibility for a huge number of concerts – nearly a hundred per year. By January 1961 he had already conducted his 1000th concert with The Hague Philharmonic.
Before long, the RO had become an outstanding ensemble that, in those years, even vied with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The Hague Philharmonic also attracted the world’s top guest conductors: Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, Eugen Jochum, Carlo Maria Giulini, Hans Rosbaud, Karl Böhm, Rafaël Kubelik, John Barbirolli, Antal Dorati, Günter Wand, Jean Martinon and Leopold Stokowski.
Van Otterloo’s composers of choice in those days were Haydn, Schubert, Berlioz, Brahms, Franck, Bruckner, Reger, Ravel, Bartók and Stravinsky. But he also conducted works such as Alban Berg’s Lulu Symphony, excerpts from Wozzeck, the Drei Orchesterstücke and the Kammerkonzert; the Fünf Orchesterstücke, Variationen für Orchester, Begleitungsmusik z.e. Lichtspielszene by Schoenberg; Anton Webern’s Fünf and Sechs Orchesterstücke and Variations für Orchester; the Fifth and Sixth Symphony by Karl Amadeus Hartmann; works by Varèse (Arcana), Ives (Three Places in New England) and more than three hundred works by contemporary Dutch composers.
In 1962 he returned to lead the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, in a co-directorship with Jean Fournet. In 1972 he left The Hague Philharmonic, taking up posts with orchestras in Düsseldorf, Tokyo and Melbourne. His last position was as chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Willem van Otterloo was by no means a glamour-seeker or showman. The music itself had the highest priority. His consummate knowledge of each and every score was legendary, and he conducted nearly all the larger works from memory. But above all he was a true orchestral trainer. He worked tirelessly on intonation (he could sing entire chords flawlessly), rhythmic precision and consistency in sound and timbre. He preferred taut, brisk tempos; he demanded orchestral discipline and total control; he had the uncanny ability to maintain a coherent musical line and never lost sight of the structure and form. In these respects Van Otterloo was perfectly suited to the recording studio.