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van Otterloo, Jan William (1907–1978)

by R. E. Northey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Jan William van Otterloo (1907-1978), by unknown photographer

Jan William van Otterloo (1907-1978), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/4662

Jan William van Otterloo (1907-1978), orchestra conductor, was born on 27 December 1907 at Winterswijk, the Netherlands, son of William Frederik van Otterloo, railways inspector, and his wife Anna Catharina, née Enderlé. He qualified to study medicine at the University of Utrecht but subsequently switched to cello and composition at the Amsterdam Conservatory. Awarded a prize by the Concertgebouw Orchestra for his Suite No.3, he conducted its first performance in 1932. He was appointed assistant-conductor of the Utrecht Municipal Orchestra (in which he had played the cello) in 1933, and four years later became joint chief conductor.

From 1949 until 1973 Willem van Otterloo was chief conductor of The Hague Residentie-Orkest. He made many recordings with the orchestra, especially in the 1950s, and toured widely with it in Europe and the United States of America, as well as conducting the leading orchestras of many countries. His own compositions included a symphony, three suites and a string quartet and trio. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to European music van Otterloo was, among other honours, appointed to the orders of Oranje-Nassau and the Lion of the Netherlands, and the Dannebrog (Denmark), and to the Légion d'honneur (France).

After successful tours of Australia for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1962 and 1965, van Otterloo was chief conductor (1967-68) of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. In 1967 he took the orchestra on its first overseas tour, to North America, where it performed twice at the World Exhibition (Expo 67) at Montreal. As principal guest conductor, in 1970 he again toured with the orchestra. The quality of its thirty performances in Washington, New York and other cities of the U.S.A. established Australia's musical reputation. In 1973 van Otterloo became chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (while remaining conductor of the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra, Germany). He led the S.S.O. on its 1974 tour of Britain and Europe. Sympathetic to contemporary music, he incorporated new works of such Australian composers as Peter Sculthorpe, Don Banks, John Anthill and Robert Hughes into the concerts overseas.

Australian musicians revered van Otterloo for his vast musical knowledge, genuineness, 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.

Blue-eyed, silver-haired and handsome, his bearing 'courtly and gracious', van Otterloo looked 'like an elderly European statesman'. He loved the music of Bach as well as Bruckner and was an authority on the traditional orchestral repertoire of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In private he enjoyed listening to jazz. Other passions were fast cars, fine food and beautiful women. He had been married twice in the Netherlands, both marriages ending in divorce. On 12 August 1970 he married Carola Gertie Ludewig, a 25-year-old German-born air hostess, at the office of the government statist, Melbourne. He died from the effects of injuries received in a motorcar accident on 27 July 1978 at East St Kilda, Melbourne. His body was flown to The Hague for cremation. He was survived by his wife, and by two sons and a daughter of his first marriage and two daughters of his second.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Buttrose, Playing for Australia (Syd, 1982)
  • E. Duyker, The Dutch in Australia (Melb, 1987)
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 Aug, 21 Dec 1965, 23 May 1967, 1 July 1970, 6 Mar 1971, 28 July 1978
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25, 28 July 1978
  • Australian, 25, 28 July 1978
  • Times (London), 28 July 1978
  • private information.

Citation details

R. E. Northey, 'van Otterloo, Jan William (1907–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/van-otterloo-jan-william-11909/text21333, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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