Willem van Otterloo was born on December 27th, 1907, in Winterwijk. His father was the deputy manager for the Dutch Railways, which explains his lifelong passion for (model) railways. Van Otterloo died in a car accident in Melbourne in 1978.
After finishing school, Van Otterloo went to study medicine in Utrecht, but a few years later he enrolled as a student at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. There he studied with Henrik Andriessen, cello with Max Orobio de Castro and composition with Sem Dresden.
Immediately after Van Otterloo’s graduation in 1932 he got a position as a cellist with the Utrecht City Orchestra. In this orchestra, he started his career as a conductor; first as second conductor and from 1937 as principal conductor.
In 1949, he became the conductor of the Residentie Orkest. He was an esteemed conductor abroad too, conducting orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of La Scala (Milan), the symphonic orchestras of Madrid and Lisbon, the Hallé Orchestra in England, the State Radio Orchestra of Denmark, the Orchestres Lamoureux and Pasdeloup in Paris, the State Radio Orchestra of Buenos Aires, and the Orchestra of the South African Radio.
Van Otterloo taught conducting at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. He was also involved in the Dutch Radio Union conducting course (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting).
After his retirement in 1972, he moved to Australia, where he was the conductor of the symphony orchestras of Sydney and Melbourne. He devoted himself in his spare time to portrait photography instead of composing
During his time in Australia, he was the general music director of the Düsseldorf Symphoniker from 1974 to 1977.
“Australian musicians revered Van Otterloo for his vast musical knowledge, authenticity, empathetic musicality and strong discipline. His ability to train orchestras to professional standards and to aspire to world-class performance was a special gift. As a conductor he was one of the ‘dry-stick’ school, but his reputation in Australia was as a musician capable of great emotion, who elicited the best from his players, even if he was reserved and punctilious. His style exacted a fine orchestral sound which avoided the spectacular.” (Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002)
His own compositions included a symphony, three suites and a string trio.
Van Otterloo was awarded a prize by the Concertgebouw Orchestra for his Suite No.3 in 1932. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to European music, he was appointed to the orders of Oranje-Nassau and the Lion of the Netherlands, the Dannebrog (Denmark), and to the Légion d’honneur (France), among other honors.