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Willem van Otterloo initially studied medicine before changing to music. He entered the Amsterdam Conservatory in 1928, studying cello with Max Orobio de Castro and composition with Sem Dresden and Hendrik Andriessen; after graduating he joined the Utrecht Orchestra as a cellist. One of his compositions, the Suite No. 3, won a prize promoted by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, and he made his conducting debut directing this orchestra in a performance of the work in 1932. The following year van Otterloo was appointed as assistant conductor of the Utrecht Stedelijk (Municipal) Orchestra, being promoted to chief conductor in 1937 and remaining with this orchestra throughout World War II until 1947. He then was active conducting operas in Amsterdam before becoming chief conductor of The Hague Residentie Orchestra (also known as The Hague Residence Orchestra or The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra) in 1949, a post which he retained until 1973. With the decision of the Dutch electrical company Philips to enter the market for commercial sound recordings following the introduction of the long-playing record, both conductor and orchestra were featured in numerous recordings made by this company. These in turn reflected the high standards of performance achieved by van Otterloo and his players, who in 1963 undertook together a tour of the USA.

In 1967 van Otterloo was invited to become the chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, a position he held for two years before becoming the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. He revisited North America with this orchestra in 1967, when it performed at Expo 67 in Canada, and again in 1970 when it toured the United States. The following year van Otterloo was appointed as chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a post which he held until his untimely death in a car accident; he was also chief conductor of the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra from 1974. His son Rogier van Otterloo was Holland’s leading arranger and composer of popular music during the 1970s and 80s.

As a composer van Otterloo was widely admired, and he was an effective interpreter of contemporary music as well as of the traditional repertoire. In addition to his work on the podium and composing he was active as a teacher of conducting, principally at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. A strict conductor, his detailed knowledge of the scores which he conducted could make life at times uncomfortable for orchestral musicians. His performances, at all times extremely musical, often possessed considerable flair, as his famous interpretation of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique well demonstrated. The withdrawal of the Philips company from the record industry, and subsequent takeovers and acquisitions, have resulted in the disappearance from the catalogue of most of van Otterloo’s extensive discography, which contained many fine performances of works from the traditional repertoire, as well as recordings of music by Dutch composers such as Diepenbrock, Pijper and Wagenaar. However, in 2006 a comprehensive survey of van Otterloo’s recordings was released on the Dutch label, Challenge Classics, with the title Willem van Otterloo – The Original Recordings 1950–1960. A radio broadcast of van Otterloo conducting his own Symphonietta has also been released as part of a survey of the radio recordings of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1935 to 1950.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

Role: Conductor 
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