Rogier van OtterlooBorn: December 11th, 1941, Amsterdam (Netherlands)
Died: January 29th, 1988, Bilthoven (Netherlands)
“I also sang in a Roman Catholic boy choir,” as Rogier recalled later, “but I was thrown out for being too wild and for scrambling about where I wasn’t supposed to. My parents’ house was imbued with music through and through. From a very young age, I was taught to play the violin, but it didn’t come lightly to me. Time and again, I suffered from pain… first, it was my wrist which bothered me, later my arm or my shoulder. Musically speaking, the violin wasn’t for me. I lost interest completely when I happened to meet the drummer of the City Theatre Orchestra (in Amsterdam – BT). Before I knew it, I found myself behind this huge drumkit in the empty City Theatre. Hitting the drums violently, I was in awe with the sound it produced in the hollow auditorium. From that moment on, classical music no longer meant much to me. As my parents had just split up, my mother’s financial situation wasn’t that easy. She wouldn’t have been able to afford the money for a drumkit. Undeterred, I collected my drumkit bit by bit by buying separate parts in various places, looking around everywhere – at Waterlooplein’s scrap market, for starters. In our small house, my room was in the basement. There, I played my ragtag drums – fortunately, the only neighbour who could have objected to the noise, was a little hard of hearing.”
In spite of his six ultimately unsuccessful years of trying to master the violin, Rogier never lost his love for it – “there is no instrument more wonderful than the violin”, he once said. His classical upbringing stayed with him in later life. Looking back on his father’s role in his youth, Rogier once stated: “For even the slightest of ailments, the medicine always was one of Mozart’s symphonies. For me, a Mozart symphony is the same as a cheese sandwich to somebody else. As a child, I regularly suffered from migraine; then, my father would say: “Come with me, son, I will help you getting rid of it soon enough” – whereupon he put on a record of Bach’s ‘St Matthew’s Passion’. Of course, it didn’t chase the headache away. At the same time, though, I was fascinated and, consciously or subconsciously, these experiences became part of my outlook as a musician. Many other music professionals lack this classical upbringing. The situation is comparable to being taught French not from age twelve, but from your earliest years onwards.”
In his adolescence, Rogier fell in love with jazz music. Without any instructions from a music teacher, he took up playing the drums in different Dixieland bands; with the Orion Jazz Band, comprised of youngsters from Amsterdam, he performed across the Netherlands and won the so-called Jazz at the Castle competition in 1958. Bandleader Jan van der Woord recalled the enthusiasm of his drummer: “Once, he took me to his basement, where there was a drumkit as well as a gramophone with an amplifier. He said: “Now listen… this is great music!” He put on a Stan Kenton record and, without hesitation, played along to the drum parts. It turned out he knew these arrangements by heart, from start to finish! He didn’t make a single mistake.” And, about Rogier’s antics on stage: “He regularly played a solo, stopped halfway through, standing up to take the audience’s applause – and then he sat down again, continuing as if it was the most natural thing in the world, never failing to give a clear sign to the rest of us when we had to join in again.”
In 1959, Rogier joined his schoolmates Edwin Rutten and René Holdert to form the Gold Coast Combo, focusing on contemporary jazz rather than Dixieland. By that time, Rogier had taught himself to play the piano. The combo made some decent money, performing at festivals and private parties. In 1961, they were signed by record label Delta to record an EP, ‘Swingin’ swayers’. Being the bandleader, Rogier wrote the arrangements. René Holdert: “Usually, Rogier figured out the harmonies by himself. He was extremely good at that. Once he had heard the melody of a given song, he sat at the piano, working tirelessly for two days to get the harmonies right. On day three, he adapted some elements here and there to refine the sound even further.”
In the second half of the 1950s into the early 1960s, in youth culture, jazz was overtaken by rock ‘n’ roll and beat music, but Rogier would have nothing of it. Holdert: “He thought it was utter crap. Three chords, nothing more! I actually rather liked some rock songs, but to Rogier this was anathema. In this respect he was really conservative. Of course, compared to that type of music, jazz was somewhat elitist.” A neighbour girl from Wassenaar, however, recalls how, in 1959, she time and again heard the sound of Cliff Richard’s record ‘Living doll’ from Rogier’s bedroom window; perhaps, as an adolescent, Rogier was ashamed to own up to his interest in teenage music.
After finally passing his grammar school exams in 1962, Rogier joined his father, who did an extended summer tour of guest performances with classical orchestras in Australia. He attended all of his father’s rehearsals. Rogier: “I was with him all the time. It was thoroughly fascinating. Moreover, we had the opportunity to talk extensively, which convinced me that I wanted to go to conservatory after all and become a professional musician. After completing my military service – I played the drums in the Royal Military Band – I enrolled in music school: theory and flute were my main subjects, while I also took a minor in piano. My main motivation was to learn how to arrange and compose for large light-entertainment orchestras and big bands. Quite early on, I figured out that I was much better at keeping sight of the big picture in an orchestra than playing an instrument myself. The sound of an ensemble as a whole has always interested me most.”
During his days at conservatory, the Amsterdams Muzieklyceum (1964-1966), Van Otterloo studied with experienced classical musicians Jolle de Wit and Hans Henkemans. In his free time, he continued playing with the Gold Coast Combo, and, later on, in the New Orleans Seven, a jazz ensemble led by Hans IJzerdraat. In later life, Rogier did not think back fondly of his student days: “Being the son of a famous father was problematic in conservatory. People would say: “Look, there is another Van Otterloo, now let’s see if he’s up to it.” I always had to do my utmost to convince my teachers that I was good enough to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
In fact, Rogier never obtained his diploma; in 1966, he was expelled from conservatory. Keen to show his abilities as a writer of music, he penned an arrangement; the next day, he proudly presented a tape recording of it to the school’s headmaster, who, however, switched off the tape recorder after the first ten bars… and refused to listen any further. The young student was livid – and so was the headmaster. Rogier: “I was kicked out. Ah, all kinds of difficulties! I wanted to learn how to write an arrangement, not just sit there and analyse Mozart’s instrumentations. It was inevitable that the bomb would burst at some point anyway.”
Undeterred, Rogier joined Lurelei, a cabaret group known for their socio-critical lyrics. Most notably, ‘Arme Ouwe’, a song poking fun of queen Juliana, caused quite some upheaval in conservative circles. One of the group’s members, Gerard Cox, has vivid memories of working with twenty-four year old Rogier: “At that time, he was kind of an odd, student-like guy. The way he articulated – so incredibly formal! But everything he composed was phenomenal. (…) He wrote the music to ‘Arme Ouwe’, and it was great. Technically speaking, he was not a good pianist, but he played the piano as if it were a complete orchestra, with wonderful chords. As for the lyrics, Rogier violently disagreed with them! (…) In smaller venues, he sometimes had to play a piano which was off stage, among the audience. If crowds had turned violent, he would have been the first they killed! In fact, though, the reactions were much milder than that. People usually just stood up and shouted: “Disgraceful!”, but even then Rogier got really nervous. He would start playing at a higher tempo, rushing through the song as fast as he could.”
After one year, Van Otterloo left Lurelei to focus on studio arranging. Initially, he worked with a smaller company, Iramac, writing scores for records by Thijs van Leer, The Outsiders, and his old schoolmate Edwin Rutten. Rogier also composed songs for Gerard Cox (‘Een broekje in de branding’) and Frans Halsema (‘Sandra’). Moreover, he wrote their arrangements, not only for studio recordings, but for live performances as well. In 1969, when Halsema performed with the Metropole Orchestra in a summer show, Van Otterloo wrote his first arrangements for Dolf van der Linden’s renowned radio ensemble. To the young arranger, it felt as a litmus test, as he recalled some years later: “In a first arrangement for such a big orchestra, a mistake is easily made. The first three nights after receiving the commission, I couldn’t sleep. Fortunately, in those early days, Dolf van der Linden supported me through thick and thin.”
By that time, Rogier van Otterloo was also writing scores for other record companies and smaller radio ensembles. In 1970, he got in touch with CBS’s A&R manager John Vis. Recognising Van Otterloo’s talent, Vis immediately coupled him with his promising young producer Ruud Jacobs. Together, the newly formed duo took on a string of ambitious recording projects commissioned by Vis – one of the first being an album with jazz singer Rita Reys interpreting compositions by Burt Bacharach (1971).
Still showing little interest in pop music, Rogier barely knew Burt Bacharach’s name, but to Vis’ mind, that was an asset rather than a disadvantage: “When doing cover versions of Bacharach, everyone used to replicate the original arrangements written by the maestro himself. All of it was based on the initial versions done with Bacharach’s favourite singer, Dionne Warwick. I thought different. I wanted Rogier, being as he was, completely unaware of any of those cover versions, to study the original pieces and come up with radically different arrangements of well-known Bacharach repertoire. Rogier wasn’t listening to recordings by God knows who all day long. That’s why he was so authentic – and the main reason why I took the gamble to do a Burt Bacharach project with him.”
Under the aegis of John Vis, who gave his protégé Claus Ogerman records to find inspiration, Van Otterloo widened his musical horizon considerably in the following years. Amongst others, he arranged albums with chansonniers Frits Lambrechts and Jules de Corte; as well as working with virtuoso instrumentalists Louis van Dijk, Chris Hinze, and Thijs van Leer – for all of whom he wrote arrangements with a distinct baroque touch, usually on the crossroads of classical music, jazz, and pop. Crossover turned out to be a gap in the market; especially ‘Introspection’, an album with flute player Thijs van Leer recorded in 1972, sold well, staying in the Netherlands’ album charts for a mind-blowing 132 weeks. Van Otterloo himself, though, was slightly uncomfortable with the direction John Vis was pushing him in.
Ruud Jacobs: “Rogier thought ‘Introspection’ wasn’t that bad, but he had mixed feelings, because he had to write arrangements to classical pieces. He found that really hard. To his mind, Fauré’s ‘Pavane’ was good enough as it was, but John and I said: “If we add a little double-bass underneath and just a tiny bit of percussion as well, just in a very tasteful way…”. Rogier did it, but he couldn’t help feeling embarrassed all the same.”
In 1973, Rogier van Otterloo wrote the arrangement to Gerard Cox’ number-one hit ‘’t Is weer voorbij die mooie zomer’, a cover version of an Arlo Guthrie song. It was recorded at the end of a day of working on a jazz album with guitarist Wim Overgaauw. Most of the musicians had already left the building. Sound engineer Dick Bakker: “At that point, Rogier spoke the historical words: “Ah, I had completely forgotten about that ‘drol van Kots’ (literally translated: ‘piece of shit by Puke’; Kots being a pun on Gerard Cox’s surname – BT)”. Rogier often spoke in a condescending manner about music which he felt was beneath his dignity. He had written a little arrangement, but not all instruments required were present in the studio. Therefore, he improvised with the musicians who were still there. There was no accordion part in the song, but accordionist Harry Mooten was available – and so Rogier gave Harry a sign to stay for just a little longer. There were some others… background vocalist Letty de Jong was one. Mary Duys was also around, so she was dragged in to sing along with Letty. “Come on, guys, let’s get this done as fast as we can!”, Rogier shouted. I think he managed to do the recording within ten minutes. His job done, Rogier went home, while I stayed for a little while to do a sound mix… and that was Gerard Cox’s monster hit!”
Asked by a journalist about his arranging work, Rogier van Otterloo felt it should be considered a form of craftsmanship rather than art. Deep down, he preferred working on his own compositions. Finally, in 1974, John Vis allows his star arranger to release an album with his own instrumental pieces, ‘Visions’. According to Van Otterloo, the LP was an attempt to create a sound which would appeal to a bricklayer as well as to a musician with conservatoire credentials. Ruud Jacobs felt ‘Visions’ was a partial success at most. “Rogier absolutely loved it,” he recalled. “I thought it was an interesting project too, but his style of writing was simply too much. John and I never were that fond of brass. Yes, soft horns or a beautiful trombone, but not this noisy fanfare Rogier confronted us with. There was more than enough of that. To our mind, Rogier’s main qualities showed in his string arrangements. Nobody was better at them than him. But in his heart, he must have preferred brass and Stravinsky-like music. He was his father’s son, obviously.”
In 1973, Van Otterloo wrote the string arrangements to the Beach Boys’ album ‘Holland’ – the only local musician to contribute to this LP recorded in the Netherlands. That same year, he made his debut as a film composer, penning the soundtrack to Paul Verhoeven’s film ‘Turks fruit’; for the recording, he relied on the help of Belgian mouthorgan wizard Toots Thielemans.
Van Otterloo: “If I’m not mistaken, Jan Wolkers (who wrote the book on which the film was based – BT) would have preferred Willem Breuker to write the music, but it’s up to the producer to recruit his crew. Through the record company, I was chosen. Of course, I wanted to watch the film before accepting. I have to be able to empathise with what happens on screen. Music has to convey moods. If I had disagreed with the film, it would have been very difficult to manage.” In another conversation, Rogier expounded on the choices he had made as a composer: “In the book, there are references to Cliff Richard, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, but if bit of their music had been included in the film, it would have dated the final product unnecessarily. (…) Musically speaking, I’m really happy with the result. Some pieces are really good, especially as the music fits the mood of the movie. At the very start, while the opening titles are still running, there’s Toots Thielemans’ wonderful mouthorgan play which drags the viewer into the movie right away.”
In the remainder of his life, Rogier van Otterloo wrote the soundtracks of eight more films, including ‘Soldaat van Oranje’ (1977), an epic story of resistance fighters in World War II, for which he came up with an orchestral main theme that has become his best-known composition. Van Otterloo also wrote the music to a handful of television series as well as several advertisement campaigns, most notably for employment agency Randstad.
In 1975, having his fill of writing crossover arrangements for John Vis and CBS, Van Otterloo switched to rival record company Polydor, where he signed a contract for three instrumental solo albums. Polydor’s producer, Cees Schrama, left the composer more artistic freedom than he had ever enjoyed at CBS. The first result was ‘On the move’, an LP which was even more progressive than ‘Visions’ had been – betraying undertones of American funk and fusion. Rogier recorded his compositions with English session musicians in the CTS Studios. For the sessions in London, Rogier was accompanied by sound engineer Dick Bakker.
Bakker about the morning of the first session: “Rogier was simply wearing leisure garments. There he was, walking from music desk to music desk to pass out the scores for the individual members of the orchestra. These English guys thought he was one of the attendants. When he climbed onto the conductor’s platform, they were convinced this rascal was taking the mickey out of them, but their scepticism subsided rapidly. After having played through the first wonderful intro, they were hugely impressed. Rogier never cared for the glamour of standing up in front of an orchestra – and, more generally, he paid no attention to his appearance at all. One time, he showed up at a funeral wearing short jeans… a really old one with frayed edges. “Well, Rogier, are you at work in your garden?”, someone wondered. His behaviour wasn’t appropriate, but he couldn’t care less.”
Unfortunately, ‘On the move’, musically speaking arguably Van Otterloo’s most interesting album, did not catch on with record buyers – and neither did the two follow-ups. In 1978, Van Otterloo and Polydor’s management decided to part ways. Cees Schrama: “We spent some 400,000 guilders, earning back at most half of that amount in revenues. An artist deserves several years to experiment, but at some point there has to be an upward-sloping line – if not, it’s better to stop. Rogier never blamed me for what happened (…). To me, Rogier made some wonderful music with CBS… but his most beautiful pieces were recorded with us at Polydor. Why? Because this was his music of choice. I feel privileged having been allowed to work with him during that part of his life.”
In the following two years, Rogier van Otterloo worked freelance, recording an album with Conny Vandenbos and pieces of Edith Piaf while also retracing his steps by accepting some commissions from his old friend John Vis at CBS. By that time, however, he had moved away somewhat from studio arranging, instead focusing ever more on film scoring and conducting television orchestras. Already back in 1970, he had made his debut as a television conductor for an AVRO music show. Two years later, Van Otterloo was commissioned to compile and conduct a 46-piece-orchestra for the annual Grand Gala du Disque, the annual award show organised by the Netherlands’ music industry; in the programme, he worked with a lavish cast of national and international artists such as Rod McKuen, Georges Moustaki, and the Osmond Brothers.
It was a commission which could have made any musician nervous, but not thirty-year-old Rogier: “When I conducted the Grand Gala last year,” he stated in a newspaper interview in 1973, “admittedly, it was a daunting task: there are millions of TV viewers and you have to work your way through a huge pile of music scores. Be that as it may, I slept very well the night before. Things like that don’t make me jittery. I am a hard worker, but not in an excessive way. Moreover, I can easily relax and unwind. When I play football or go fishing, two pastimes I like spending much time on, I manage to forget everything around me.”
Between 1972 and 1977, Rogier van Otterloo was the musical director of ‘Music All-In’, an entertainment programme featuring mostly jazz, chanson, and crossover music, produced by Ralph Inbar and hosted by Pim Jacobs. Each season, nine sequels were recorded with a host of high-profile soloists; Anita Kerr, Charles Aznavour, and Ella Fitzgerald all performed in the programme at some point. Apart from conducting the orchestra, Van Otterloo wrote part of the arrangements. Sometimes, several episodes of ‘Music All-In’ were recorded on one day. Horn player Roel Koster hated the gruelling schedule which the conductor enforced on his orchestra: “We started recording at 10.30AM, working until 11PM. These days seemed endless. Once, it was excruciatingly hot – some forty degrees Celsius. When one of the string players had the heart to complain about the temperature, Rogier showed no mercy: “Sit down, or else you don’t have to come back ever again!””
In 1977, Van Otterloo made his debut as a guest conductor with the Metropole Orchestra. Meanwhile, the avuncular Dolf van der Linden, who had been the ensemble’s chief conductor since its foundation in 1945, was approaching the pensionable age – and, especially as Van der Linden was seriously ill for several months in 1976, the musicians started thinking about a successor. Though those who had come across Rogier van Otterloo in freelance orchestras knew he wasn’t an easy character to work with by any means, the younger generation of musicians realised the orchestra badly needed new impetus. Problematically, though, Dolf van der Linden did not want to discuss the future of the orchestra. Moreover, he didn’t have a high opinion of Van Otterloo; Van der Linden felt he lacked the technique required to conduct his orchestra. In a private conversation with conducting colleague Jan Stulen, Dolf referred to Van Otterloo as a pastry cook and bicycle repairman.
Concertmaster Ernő Oláh: “To my mind, it wasn’t personal. Deep down, Dolf simply wanted his orchestra to go down with him. As you’ll understand, this was a prospect which frightened us, the new kids in the orchestra. We were determined to do everything within our power to keep it going. Of all the candidates who were discussed, Rogier was the only one whose reputation and talents as a composer and arranger could give us the boost we were so badly in need of. This guy wrote the music which fitted in with our times. He didn’t follow fashions – he created them, showing a direction which others followed. As a conductor, Dolf van der Linden was great, but he was getting older; and he wasn’t too keen to allow talented conductors an opportunity to do a guest performance. There was no way you could even begin a discussion about a successor. In the end, we decided to approach Rogier behind Dolf’s back. Dolf was really hurt, but there was no other option.”
Was Rogier enthusiastic about the prospect of working with the Metropole Orchestra? His wife, Willy: “No, at the outset, he wasn’t really. Over the years, it had evolved in some sort of a ballroom orchestra… terribly old-fashioned. You seldom ever heard them on the radio any longer. I wasn’t that keen either – I mean, Rogier was enjoying success as a film composer and studio arranger. He had managed to build quite a reputation. So why join an old gentlemen’s club? Ernő and some of the other musicians came to visit, imploring Rogier to consider their offer. Finally, realising that much of the older guard would go on pension around the same time as Dolf, he decided to accept. There was the potential to turn the orchestra into something more contemporary. No, Rogier never regretted his decision. To my initial surprise, it was a job which suited him very well.”
Joining the Metropole Orchestra as assistant chief conductor in 1979, Rogier van Otterloo finally took over from Dolf van der Linden the following year. During his year as Van der Linden’s understudy, Van Otterloo was keen to exchange ideas, but the old maestro was too hurt. “Rogier called Dolf several times,” according to Ernő Oláh, “but Dolf simply hung up on him. At that point, he decided to go visit him at home. I strongly advised against it, because Dolf wasn’t the type of person who liked receiving unannounced visitors. Having a chat while downing a beer or two wasn’t his style. A lovely man, but a bit distant. Rogier dismissed me as a pessimist and went to Hilversum to knock on Dolf’s door… but, of course, the door was shut in his face. That was the end of Rogier’s attempts. There was never any incident between the two, but Dolf needed time to come to terms with the idea that he had to leave his orchestra to someone else.”
In a newspaper interview on the occasion of his appointment, speaking of his ambitions, Van Otterloo stated: “Working with the Metropole Orchestra means playing music scores of which the ink is still wet. The music is fresh as can be. It’s not at all the same as playing a Beethoven symphony for the thousandth time. (…) I am on the lookout for new, bright, hip compositions. Personally, I prefer instrumental pieces, but of course we’ll have to take on all sorts of different projects. A very important trait of any conductor is being a good coach, able to inspire and motivate the orchestra. Players cannot give their best until being utterly convinced they’re working on the best music on earth.”
Right from the start, Van Otterloo seemed to be able to inspire the orchestra – and moreover, his reputation alone was sufficient to receive many more requests from radio and television than in previous years. Continuing to work with Dolf van der Linden’s star arrangers Rob Pronk and Jerry van Rooyen, Van Otterloo also attracted top-notch writers from abroad, most notably Kenny Napper, Steve Gray, and Bill Holman. Quite opposite to his predecessor, who had hardly composed or arranged repertoire for his orchestra during the last twenty years of his tenure, Van Otterloo contributed new pieces regularly. Some of the first examples were his Eurovision overture (1980) and ‘Mistral’ (1981).
Ernő Oláh: “In the course of his eight years with us, Rogier wrote some pieces for me which were heaven on earth. In the score, it didn’t say ‘solo violin’, it said ‘Ernő’. This music was tailor-made for us. That’s why these years with Rogier were so glorious and happy. In rehearsals, we didn’t stop until the result was just great. Each solo bears a message for the musician playing it. If you play the notes without immersing yourself in it completely, you can’t convey the composer’s emotions. A solo has to grab you in the face and take you to a higher level of existence. That’s the level you could reach with Rogier.”
Van Otterloo did not stop just there. Continuing the work started by Dolf van der Linden to bring in fresh players, he rejuvenated most of the orchestra during the first three years of his conductorship. In 1983, when Jan Stulen’s light-classical Promenade Orchestra was dismantled, Rogier convinced the broadcaster’s management that the Metropole needed an extended string section – and incorporated some fifteen of the Promenade Orchestra’s string players into his orchestra. Another innovation was his creation of two different rhythm sections: one for jazz projects, the other for pop music.
Percussionist Rob Meyn: “Bass guitarist Jan Hollestelle was the first of the pop guys in our midst; Jan replaced Rob Langereis for programmes which were predominantly pop-oriented. Later, guitarist Lex Bolderdijk and drummer Arno van Nieuwenhuize joined as well, creating a fully-fledged pop rhythm group (…), but Rogier did more than changing the make-up of the orchestra; we had to get used to his style of rehearsing as well. He needed much more time than we had been used to previously. For a full day of rehearsing, Dolf often managed to do all the work in the morning hours; by 1PM, we could often go home to enjoy an afternoon off. Rogier was different. He demanded a higher level of perfection from us. Consequently, our working days became much longer.”
As Dolf van der Linden had already predicted, Rogier’s instinctive, rather physical style of conducting caused some problems in the beginning. It became painfully clear that conducting operetta and other light classical genres, as Van der Linden had done for decades, was beyond his capabilities. “From a purely technical point of view,” violinist Ernő Oláh explains, “Dolf van der Linden is the best conductor we ever had. Having said that, you have to take into account that the variation in repertoire in Dolf’s years was not that considerable. His style of conducting fitted in wonderfully well with the music genres the orchestra played at the time. To give you an example: he never had to work on wildly experimental rock music. In that sense, Dolf had had an easy ride. Rogier, on the other hand, was a fantastic composer and arranger, but he needed time to develop his style of conducting. His gestures were always rather angular. After a while, we got used to him, but he never became a conductor through and through.”
Under Van Otterloo, the Metropole Orchestra took part in a wide variety of radio and television programmes, ranging from symphonic jazz on late night radio to chanson and outright pop. Although he never quite felt at ease working on pop music, Van Otterloo did not run away from it, conducting the Netherlands’ pre-selection for the Eurovision Song Contest and the Gala of the Year shows in Rotterdam’s Ahoy’ with Lee Towers and Anita Meyer. His obligations as a conductor left him increasingly little time for composing. “Ideally, I would like to spend twenty, twenty-five weeks a year on writing music and fifteen weeks on conducting,” he told a newspaper journalist in 1986. “At the moment, the situation is more or less the other way around. Including guest performances with other orchestras (most notably the Rotterdam Philharmonic – BT), I am waving the baton for some thirty-five weeks per year. Next season will include twenty-three TV programmes. Having said that, I’m quite looking forward to all those projects, because my orchestra is nothing short of fantastic.”
In early 1983, Van Otterloo experienced respiratory problems, which turned out not to be due to pneumonia, but a malignant tumour in his lungs. After a successful operation and a recovery which lasted several months, he was ready to get back to work by the summer of that same year, but the disease raised its ugly head once again three years later – and this time, there was no way back. Though he now had to be replaced for much longer periods, during which Jan Stulen, Jerry van Rooyen, and Harry van Hoof stepped in, most members of the orchestra were not in the know of the seriousness of their chief conductor’s illness. “There was no talk of the end being near,” flute player Friederike Darius recalled. “It was all a bit mysterious. Rogier didn’t want to give up. He was ill, but everyone was hoping for his return until the very end. There wasn’t any talk of looking for a successor. Rogier was so young. His head was full of new exciting projects.”
In January 1988, Rogier van Otterloo passed away, aged 46. Three months later, he was posthumously awarded with an Edison Prize for the album ‘My romance’, which he had recorded with the Metropole Orchestra and jazz soloists Greetje Kauffeld, Ack van Rooyen, Herman Schoonderwalt, and Eef Albers. The prize offered little comfort to the musicians of the Metropole Orchestra; they were desperate. “We were all in shock when he died,” horn player Roel Koster remembers. “Nobody knew what to do or where to turn. After coming home from his funeral, I couldn’t think of anything else to do than listening to his arrangement ‘Go on forever’ for hours on end. How could this orchestra continue? How could we go on without this man?”
The search for a new chief conductor took over three years; during part of that period, Jerry van Rooyen stepped in as a temporary replacement. Finally, in 1991, when the broadcasting service was on the brink of dismantling the orchestra altogether, Dick Bakker, in spite of harbouring the same reservations his old friend had had a decade before, accepted the offer to step in: “In 1979, when Rogier took over the orchestra, I was astonished about his decision – and many others in the business as well. Until that time, he had always spoken of the Metropole Orchestra in a rather derogatory manner. He thought they were rubbish; and a regular job at the public broadcasting service… what could be more boring? Well, human beings are strange creatures who are prone to changing mind all the time. Twelve years later, the job was mine.”
Rogier van Otterloo in the Eurovision Song Contest
Four years later, it was beyond Van der Linden’s control to handpick a replacement. He already had to tolerate working alongside a successor-elect; one year prior to taking Van der Linden’s place, Van Otterloo was appointed as his assistant – an uncomfortable situation for both men. At the same time, this made Van Otterloo the obvious choice for musical director of the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest. For Van Otterloo, it was the first opportunity to prove himself in his new capacity. Asked by a journalist about the prospect of conducting the festival, he replied: “Don’t be mistaken, Eurovision is a hell of a job. Ten consecutive days of rehearsing and music which isn’t always that good. But then, we’ll be performing for a television audience of about half a billion; and we’ll be playing a majestic overture. Lastly, the orchestra has to perform under the baton of various conductors (from other participating countries – BT) – and there are bound to be some quite strange fellows among them.”
Confronted with the last sentence in the quote above, Ernő Oláh, Van Otterloo’s concertmaster, cannot help laughing: “Indeed, some conductors in a Eurovision Song Contest were hopelessly amateurish. In the Metropole Orchestra, we were used to working with Dolf and Rogier, who were experienced professionals – and some of these foreign guys were composers or studio arrangers not used to conducting an orchestra. This could lead to problematic situations; in some cases, the orchestra had to guide the conductor instead of the other way around. Before the rehearsals got underway, I had spoken about this with Rogier. He could be rather blunt, tactless even, while I was used to working with guest conductors. We agreed that he would leave it up to me to speak with them if problems arose; I took them aside, giving them fatherly advice on which gestures to make to help the orchestra players. Rogier was present during rehearsals to welcome all conductors on behalf of the orchestra. Of course, Eurovision wasn’t his cup of tea, but believe me: he was motivated to get the best possible result like all the rest of us.”
Apart from overseeing rehearsals, Rogier van Otterloo also conducted the Netherlands’ effort, ‘Amsterdam’ by Maggie MacNeal. Van Otterloo personally approached Dick Bakker to write the orchestration. “Rogier wasn’t thrilled about the song,” Bakker recalls. “At two-thirds, there was an ugly transition to a different key. He didn’t know what to do with it and wondered if I knew a way out. Taking the lyrics as my starting point, I felt I needed a sound related to the city of Amsterdam itself. That’s how I got the idea of bringing in a barrel organ. For the barrel organ elements in the choruses I used a small electric organ. That same organ was my solution to this strange modulation for which Rogier hadn’t found a solution. Thus, the transition became slightly more fluent and natural.”
Even forty years on, singer Maggie MacNeal (Sjoukje van ‘t Spijker in real life) cannot hide her enthusiasm about the arrangement: “Great, in one word! It was a touch of genius how Dick managed to sow that barrel organ into the melody; the modulation he came up with was sublime too. The rest of the arrangement was pretty straightforward. Usually, I wrote the arrangements to new songs with my husband (drummer Frans Smit – BT) and the rest of my band, but Eurovision was a bit too important – and I was happy to let a professional as Dick Bakker bring in his expertise. During the rehearsals in The Hague, he was around to check if the sound was right.”
Asked about the rehearsals with Van Otterloo and the Metropole Orchestra, Maggie adds: “Frankly, Rogier was a bit inaccessible. Previously, when I did Eurovision in 1974, I had worked with Harry van Hoof, who was much more relaxed… just one of the guys, you know. Rogier didn’t have the slickness. Moreover, right before we started our rehearsal, he told us how unhappy he was about our using a rhythm track. He felt it was unnecessary; his orchestra could play everything live… and my backing musicians had better go home. At that point, my husband Frans stepped in and spoke up for the guys on stage. Looking back, Rogier might have been a bit tense about his responsibilities as musical director in such a huge international show, but I think he didn’t really like working on this kind of music either. All those shallow songs and la-la-la… I wouldn’t say he disdained it, but it wasn’t for him. He gave us a feeling that he was of a different calibre. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t take away anything from his capabilities as a composer; his overture to the festival was a piece of art. As for our song, he did a sterling job on that as well – the orchestra played to perfection.”
In the voting, won by Ireland’s Johnny Logan, ‘Amsterdam’ finished in a respectable fifth place. For Rogier van Otterloo, it was the end of what must have been a stressful day. Mere hours before the start of the programme, he was confronted with an acute problem. Double-bassist Rob Langereis, an excellent jazz player but not that keen on pop music, reported sick. A replacement had to be found urgently – and the man who did the job, Jan Hollestelle, stayed with the orchestra for good. Hollestelle was the first of the Metropole Orchestra’s pop rhythm section, which Van Otterloo compiled in the following years; henceforth, the orchestra had two rhythm sections, one for jazz projects, the other for pop music. After the contest, Van Otterloo received praise in newspaper columns for the way he and his orchestra had presented themselves on an international stage; De Telegraaf specifically praised his self-penned instrumental overture.
“It was a dazzling piece of music,” concertmaster Ernő Oláh agrees. “When Rogier was commissioned to write that overture, the both of us discussed it at length. In his orchestral arrangements, the excitement usually came from the brass section; string parts he wrote around that mainly consisted of long notes – a warm blanket of strings wrapped around the melody, little more. Among string players, we referred to them as football notes. We were bored! Our potential was seldom used to the full. For that reason, I encouraged Rogier to put more emotion into his string writing. With Dolf van der Linden, there had never been a need to ask – most of his string arrangements were lively, in a style which was very American. When Rogier succeeded him, I felt he needed some challenging. In this overture, he put in all kinds of little runs and figures for the string group. It made the sound of the orchestra as a whole much richer.”
One year on, in 1981, the NOS returned to organising its traditional televised selection programme to choose the Eurovision entry, the so-called Nationaal Songfestival; ten songs performed by five artists were selected to take part in the competition, of which nine were accompanied by Van Otterloo and his orchestra; to the conductor’s dismay, however, the winning song was the distinctly Schlageresque ‘Het is een wonder’, the only entry without any orchestral accompaniment. The performing artist, an hitherto unknown girl with the stage name Linda Williams, was accompanied by a five-man backing group, including Francis Goya on guitar.
At the final, held in Rotterdam, Dick Bakker had a composition in the running as well. Backstage, Bakker witnessed Van Otterloo’s reaction when ‘Het is een wonder’ won: “When the result came through, Rogier was livid. He threw the whole pack of arrangements for the show on the floor, exclaiming: “This is utterly disgraceful!”. At that point, I couldn’t help laughing.”
Initially, the production team behind ‘Het is een wonder’ saw no reason to add an orchestral arrangement to the song now that it had been picked to go the international final in Dublin; however, under the pretext that the use of the orchestra was obligatory in the Eurovision Song Contest – which was untrue, as the previous two editions had seen entries from Italy and Belgium with a full backing track mimed by instrumentalists on stage –, NOS officials managed to convince them to add a string arrangement. Producer Bart van de Laar handed the score, written by John Sluszny, to Rogier van Otterloo upon arrival in the hotel in Dublin.
Needless to say, Van Otterloo was not a happy man in Dublin – and he made no secret of it. In an interview with a Dutch newspaper a couple of days before the festival, he stated: “The truth of the matter is that I have come here to conduct just twenty-five string players. To my mind, contestants shouldn’t be allowed to use backing tracks. New rules have to be put in place. For an artist performing at a small venue far away in the countryside, I can imagine such tools are helpful; here, however, there is an experienced Irish orchestra available which, musically speaking, is able to fulfil all requirements.”
In Dublin, Rogier was accompanied by his wife, Willy. She does not have the best of memories of the week in Ireland. “Rogier didn’t like Linda Williams’ song to begin with. We thought it was a bit silly. In the weeks leading up to the contest, we were poking fun of it at the kitchen table, singing that nagging chorus over and over. To make matters worse, once we were in Dublin, Rogier fell ill. He suffered from pain on his chest. Possibly, these were the first symptoms of lung cancer, who knows? At any rate, he did little more than travel from the hotel to the concert venue to do the rehearsals, and back again. We had little opportunity to go out and do some sightseeing.”
Van Otterloo’s chagrin notwithstanding, ‘Het is een wonder’ did not go down badly with international jurors, picking up 51 points and finishing ninth among twenty participating entries. Listening to the live version of ‘Het is een wonder’, it is rather understandable that the conductor felt redundant, as the strings were put so low in the mix that they were cancelled out almost completely by the backing tape. Months later, when Van Otterloo was interviewed by De Telegraaf’s Henk van der Meyden, the conductor was still indignant about his most recent Eurovision experience:
“What happened in the past edition of the contest with our song ‘Het is een wonder’, was pathetic, don’t you think? Admittedly, Linda is quite a good singer, but in my role as a conductor in this festival I was ashamed of our entry. It lacked any form of originality. No creativity whatsoever, no attempt to come up with something ‘new’ in the true sense of the word. This is the way it has been with our Eurovision entries for years now. Time and again, the songs submitted are in the same vein as in previous years, because it is assumed – rightly so, I’m afraid – that such songs get picked more readily (by the national jury – BT). My opinion is different. I’d rather finish last with an original song than coming seventh with a ten-a-penny kind of entry. As a conductor and as a musician, I can no longer accept this type of songs… I really can’t! Therefore, I have proposed to those responsible in NOS’s entertainment branch to henceforth make creativity and originality the most important criterion when picking a Eurovision entry. I want the Netherlands to take part with something which is truly ‘new’. If this won’t be the case and we can’t come up with something better, I will withdraw as a conductor. I cannot accept it! I couldn’t bear conducting this type of music in the Eurovision Song Contest again.”
Van Otterloo’s pleas did not go unheard. For the 1982 Nationaal Songfestival, he was included in the selection committed along with, amongst others, his friends Pim and Ruud Jacobs. They picked three songs for the national final; there, another jury would take over to make the final choice. An original plan was thought up: this second jury was to consist of seven Eurovision conductors from other countries; for organisational reasons, however, nothing came of it. Thereupon, seven Dutch music and showbiz professionals were called upon. Contrary to expectation, a retro ditty in Gilbert O’Sullivan style, ‘Jij en ik’ (composed by Dick Bakker), beat pre-contest favourite ‘Fantasy Island’ into second place.
According to Piet Souer, one of the songwriters of the rigorously up-tempo ‘Fantasy Island’, Rogier van Otterloo strongly influenced the outcome: “That year, everyone’s main concern appeared to be to choose quality – whatever that might mean. For that reason, people in the jury seemed to like the fact that the lyrics of ‘Jij en ik’ were by Liselore Gerritsen (a well-known chansonnière and Ruud Jacobs’ wife – BT). Furthermore, Rogier van Otterloo made it known that he preferred ‘Jij en ik’ over the other songs; this amounted to a voting recommendation for the jurors. I’d like to stress that I wouldn’t dare to judge the artistical value of ‘Jij en ik’, but instinctively I sensed that its chances in an international competition were minimal.”
The vocalist chosen to perform ‘Jij en ik’ was actor and musical singer Bill van Dijk. “I was approached by (a well-known composer and arranger in the Netherlands - BT) Tony Eyk”, Van Dijk recalls. “I didn’t know at the time that Dave and Rob de Nijs had already been offered to take part, but refused – and then Tony and Rogier probably thought of my name. Before Eurovision, I had regularly worked with Rogier and the Metropole Orchestra to our mutual satisfaction. Initially, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Eurovision. It was an event which I had never paid much attention to. When I expressed my doubts, Tony and Rogier persuaded me by claiming that it would be an excellent opportunity to become a household name for television viewers in Holland.”
After his win, Bill van Dijk was signed by the Utopia record company, who assigned the task of making a studio recording of ‘Jij en ik’ to their producer… Piet Souer. From that moment, neither Bill van Dijk nor Rogier van Otterloo seemed to have any say over the final product. Composer Dick Bakker, who was in the studio when the song was recorded, was brushed aside as well. “Even before the actual recording got underway,” Bakker recalls, “I sensed which direction Piet wanted to take. With his engineers, he took about fifteen minutes to set up the bass drum. The result was a pop beat which was mercilessly loud. This didn’t fit in at all with my original intentions when I wrote the song. Having said that, Piet is a capable guy. At the time, I felt he might be right – perhaps my original arrangement was too old-fashioned.”
Looking back, Bill van Dijk puts it more sharply than the songwriter: “My record company were a bunch of scoundrels. They were convinced ‘Fantasy Island’ would win – and when it didn’t and they were stuck with my song, they felt it had to be adapted radically. “This wasn’t good, that wasn’t good either, it was too old-fashioned…” I completely disagreed with their approach, but they weren’t really interested in my opinion to be honest. Frankly, the result was a different song which lacked the pleasant Gilbert O’Sullivan feel it had had in the pre-selection. Rogier agreed with me that this new version was inferior to the original.”
After all his pains to end up with a better entry than in Dublin, Rogier van Otterloo found himself at the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest in Harrogate basically doing the same as the previous year: conducting the string section of the festival orchestra to add a tiny bit of extra flavour to an extensive backing track. In spite of his vocal opposition to the use of pre-recorded music elements, rhythm tracks were still allowed under Eurovision regulations. Contrary to the year before, Van Otterloo did not make complaints about the situation to journalists. Quite the opposite: according to those who were with him, he seems to have enjoyed the week in Northern England.
Songwriter Dick Bakker was a good friend of Rogier’s. “As Piet Souer was the producer,” Bakker recalls, “it was up to him to oversee rehearsals, so I didn’t really get involved. Meanwhile, we had a marvellous time. Liselore Gerritsen and her husband Ruud Jacobs were there… and Rogier took his wife along. In all, it was great fun. Together, we enjoyed our short holiday. Meanwhile, when we dropped in on rehearsals, we were dismayed by the childish choreography which had been invented for Bill van Dijk and his backing vocalists. Honestly speaking, we agreed we wanted as little to do with all of that as possible.”
Poor Bill van Dijk was left to his own devices: “That choreography wasn’t my idea! I wasn’t happy with it at all. To make matters worse, when we came to Harrogate, we found the podium was too small for the dance moves we had rehearsed in the Netherlands – so we had to start from scratch, while rehearsing time was preciously tight. My wife had to go looking for a local choreographer herself; Rogier and the rest of the NOS’ production team arrived a couple of days later, but there was no help from them – they seemed more focused on playing tennis and going to all kinds of different parties. It wasn’t Rogier’s fault; he did his job in front of the orchestra, but nothing more. In a conversation we had in Harrogate, Rogier and I agreed to do a Metropole Orchestra special with me as a soloist, but, sadly, he fell ill quite soon afterwards… and nothing came of it. That was a pity! Rogier was a hugely talented and friendly man. Working with him was always enjoyable.”
In the Eurovision final, ‘Jij en ik’ did badly, picking up just eight points and finishing second-last. Now that Van Otterloo had had his opportunity to influence the choice of the Netherlands’ festival entry – and without much success either artistically or in terms of result –, he was not given a second go. Whereas in 1982 artists had been invited by the broadcaster, the following year record producers were commissioned to submit complete acts for the national final; with this new approach, NOS Entertainment branch hoped to “achieve a breakthrough to new talent”. In other words: all power was back with the record companies. It sounded as the exact opposite of what Van Otterloo had been arguing for all along.
In the end, Rogier van Otterloo had no involvement in the 1983 Netherlands’ selection programme – not because of objections to the formula chosen for the competition, but due to illness; undergoing cancer treatment for months, it was not until the summer of that year that he was able to resume his place at the helm of the Metropole Orchestra. In his absence, he was replaced by several guest conductors; in the case of the Eurovision pre-selection, Ruud Bos stepped in, an experienced composer and arranger who regularly worked with the orchestra.
The 1983 edition of the Nationaal Songfestival was not a happy affair for the orchestra; not only did the ensemble have to make do without their chief, it also turned out virtually all of the participating acts used extensive backing tracks. At some point during rehearsals, the orchestra’s musicians rebelled; their drummer, Evert Overweg, refused to cede his place to an instrumentalist miming the percussion part for one of the songs on stage. Unbeknownst to NOS’ event crew, several weeks ahead of the programme, the orchestra’s musicians had agreed henceforth to refuse working with backing tracks or additional instrumentalists. Songwriters and producers taking part in the national final were beside themselves with anger, demanding a replacement orchestra. Their dismay was shared by NOS’ Head of Entertainment Harry Hagedoorn, who, however, explained that it would be impossible to bring together a freelance orchestra in the scope of four or five days. Eventually, the Metropole Orchestra only played the overture, two medleys, and the finale; all participating songs were performed to a full playback tape. Making matters worse, the show’s host Ivo Niehe openly chided the orchestra for their behaviour to the applause of the audience in the hall.
Van Otterloo’s replacement Ruud Bos was little more than an unhappy witness: “Until the moment I asked Overweg to cede his place for that one song, I was unaware of the sentiments in the orchestra. This is a frustration which has been felt by the musicians for several years. To my mind, it is nonsensical to automatically ask the Metropole Orchestra for this type of programmes. A smaller orchestra of freelance players surely is more easily malleable – exactly what producers want. Probably, this will be the last time the Metropole Orchestra receives the commission to work on Eurovision. To my mind, in this Nationaal Songfestival, the orchestra was pushed in a direction which was far too commercial for their good anyway.”
And, asked if he agreed with his musicians, Bos replied: “This is an orchestra that has been commissioned as one integral body – it is no more than logical they want to perform as a group, without backing tracks and additional musicians taking their place. Since Rogier van Otterloo took over the orchestra, it has seen a remarkable upsurge thanks to the influx of younger musicians. These youngsters feel they’re up to playing anything – and quite rightly so, if I may say so.”
In the 1983’s Eurovision Song Contest, Bos did not get to conduct the Netherlands’ effort ‘Sing me a song’. Instead, the orchestra was led by producer and arranger Piet Souer – the only time in Eurovision history a Dutch entry was conducted by its composer. The following year, in spite of Ruud Bos’ predictions, the Metropole Orchestra was called upon again for the Eurovision selection programme – and a reinvigorated Rogier van Otterloo was back as its musical director. Although the 1984 pre-selection was a studio production without the orchestra present on stage, all songs had pre-recorded arrangements played in their entirety by the Metropole Orchestra. The competition was won by ‘Ik hou van jou’, a lush ballad arranged by Dick Bakker and performed by a charming girl from Volendam, Maribelle.
Maribelle vividly remembers hearing the Metropole Orchestra play the instrumental accompaniment to ‘Ik hou van jou’ for the first time: “We were preparing for the pre-selection show. In the studios in Hilversum, they let me sit in front of the orchestra while they recorded ‘Ik hou van jou’. It was such a beautiful moment – Rogier conducting this full orchestra, with kettledrums and all. It seemed as if I was lifted from the ground. I don’t know what heaven looks like, but I’m sure it must be something like that! After winning the selection in the Netherlands, we recorded the single release in England with players from the London Philharmonic. They were excellent. Dick Bakker didn’t require more than two takes with them to get it absolutely right.”
Given the character of the song, its producers felt no additional backing track was required for the Eurovision final in Luxembourg. As one of the few participating musical directors in the contest, Rogier van Otterloo got to conduct the Eurovision orchestra in its entirety. Not surprisingly, the orchestra musicians in Luxembourg unanimously picked ‘Ik hou van jou’ as their number-one favourite. “This was the only song for which the violinists could play their hearts out and even hear what they were playing. After the general rehearsal, Rogier van Otterloo was awarded with a spontaneous applause from the orchestra”, a Dutch journalist in Luxembourg noted. Nonetheless, the rehearsals were not completely unproblematic. The tempo of the song had to be exactly right to avoid going over the three-minute time limit.
“… and there was also this bass guitarist in the orchestra,” Maribelle adds. “My husband Jan, who was a guitarist himself, noticed that this guy was making a mistake on the same note every time. Jan told Rogier, who was grateful and discussed it with the bass player right away. From then on, the orchestra sounded perfect. The atmosphere in our delegation was excellent, and Rogier was all smiles. He told everyone he loved the song. No, he wasn’t distant at all – quite the opposite, he was really supportive of me. It was a pity the orchestra was down in a pit below the stage. I couldn’t even see Rogier. That was rather annoying… it made it all a little unpersonal. I’d rather have had Rogier and the orchestra supporting me on stage.”
Unfortunately, ‘Ik hou van jou’ failed to win over international jurors, who picked a less than subtle up-tempo piece from Sweden as their winners. Maribelle came thirteenth. After the contest, Van Otterloo was quoted as saying: “This result proves once again that any artist taking part in a song festival of this type is left to fend for himself. One should really bear that in mind all the time; if you’re not up to it, you shouldn’t even try.”
In spite of the deception, Maribelle kept spirits high. Immediately after the voting, backstage, she invited Rogier to a dance. “I was happy to have been part of Eurovision,” she explains. “Germany came thirteenth as well, with the same number of points, but they didn’t take it that lightly; their delegation even left the auditorium before the end of the voting. I had no reason to feel downcast. I had had a great time and the song was wonderful – and the arrangement was world-class. To my regret, I never worked with Rogier after the festival in Luxembourg. Looking back, it was quite a special experience to have had a musician of this calibre as my conductor.”
In the following two Eurovision editions, Rogier van Otterloo had no part: in 1985, for the first time, the Netherlands did not participate in the festival as it was held on May 4th, National Remembrance Day; while, in 1986, Van Otterloo had fallen ill once more – the pulmonary cancer which seemed to have been suppressed in the summer of 1983, had returned. Rogier was replaced by Harry van Hoof, who returned to the festival after a seven-year absence.
By the time preparations got underway to pick the 1987 Netherlands’ Eurovision candidate, Van Otterloo’s condition had worsened. Although spending long spells of time at home to recover, he did projects with the Metropole Orchestra here and there whenever his physical condition enabled – and the Nationaal Songfestival was one. For the selection, composers were invited to submit their work. In the end, six entries were withheld, to be performed by one artist: Marga Bult, former singer in girl group Babe. Marga had never worked with Van Otterloo when she stepped into the Hilversum studios to rehearse her festival songs.
“To tell you the truth, I was a bit nervous,” she recalls, “but when I came in, all members of the orchestra rose to their feet. That was rather impressive. I thanked them and shook hands with Rogier. Then, he counted them in straightaway; he obviously didn’t like wasting time! I loved singing with that orchestra. There were two rehearsal days before the national final. After the second of them, Rogier said: “Mrs Bult, I would like to tell you something. What a professional you are! I want to kiss you.” And he kissed me on the cheek, three times, in front of the whole orchestra. I was very surprised, because up to that point he seemed somewhat distant. My producer Peter Koelewijn, who attended the rehearsals, was stunned: “Believe me, Marga, I’ve known Rogier for a long time, but this is unprecedented; I’ve never seen him doing a thing like that.” You’ll understand that I was very proud.”
After the rehearsals in Hilversum had taken place, the Nationaal Songfestival itself was held in The Hague. To the dismay of Van Otterloo and the orchestra, it turned out that most of the songs were backed up by a rhythm track. A new stand-off between songwriters and orchestra was the result; contrary to four years before, the Metropole Orchestra won the day this time around: in the broadcast, all songs were performed entirely live.
“This was a discussion between the producers and Rogier,” Marga Bult explains. “To avoid being caught up in the middle, I chose not to get involved, instead focusing on getting the performance right with my backing group. Once ‘Rechtop in de wind’ had been picked for the Eurovision Song Contest (one of three songs in the competition penned by Peter Koelewijn – BT), Peter decided to bring in the backing tracks for the international festival, adding some attractive synthesizer flavour onto the orchestra. I agreed with Peter on this. Using additional tracks was allowed under Eurovision rules and the sound became richer as a result. After we had arrived at the rehearsals for the Eurovision final in Brussels, I had a chat with Rogier about the rhythm tracks, explaining that it was about bringing about the best-possible performance. He was unconvinced. Here was a man who even hated the use of click tracks (used to indicate the tempo on the musicians’ headphones – BT), let alone a back-up tape. Of course, I understood his point of view. As a conductor, he must have felt restricted in his freedom while working with the orchestra.”
This time, there was nothing Van Otterloo could do. The arrangement he conducted in Brussels consisted of string and brass parts only. To a newspaper journalist who attended the first rehearsal, he made no attempt to hide his dissatisfaction: “This is pure playback… and for no reason. The rhythm section in the orchestra at our disposal here is magnificent.”
The fact that Van Otterloo was the conductor of the Netherlands’ delegation in Brussels was a miracle in itself. Marga: “Even when preparing the national final back in the Netherlands, the production team weren’t sure if he was physically up to it – and if he wanted to do it in the first place. They asked him, but his answer was that he wanted to do Eurovision at all cost. Now, after the pre-selection in The Hague, some five weeks elapsed until Brussels was due. Just days before going to Eurovision, I received information that perhaps Rogier had to be replaced by Harry van Hoof after all. Apparently, his cancer had gotten worse. They asked Harry if his agenda allowed him to jump in if need be. In the end, Rogier himself took the decision to come along. I cannot begin to tell you how I respected that man. He was looking emaciated – markedly worse than in The Hague, and even there it was obvious that he was not well. Still, he made the trip to Brussels to help me out. To my mind, he was every inch a professional.”
“In Brussels, I got to know him better,” Marga continues. “By that time, we called each other by our first name – and he had found out that I had worked as a nurse for several years. I asked him how he was feeling every day. “How nice of you to ask!”, he whispered. Smalltalk wasn’t really for Rogier, and although he never spoke about his health in public, he was keen to have a chat with me – provided we were alone at a table without others overhearing our conversation. He spoke softly. With my background in healthcare, I understood better than others what he was going through. By that time, he was using heavy painkillers. I urged him to take his meals on time and to avoid overstraining himself. Away from rehearsals, he often went to bed. Rogier didn’t go to any of the parties. At one reception, Toots Thielemans performed – and how wonderful would it have been to meet his old friend again, but he simply was too weak to sit up all evening. Whenever his presence wasn’t absolutely required, he stayed in the hotel.”
For Marga’s second rehearsal, Van Otterloo was too ill to come to the auditorium; Flemish colleague Freddy Sunder, who conducted the Belgian entry as well, was asked to step in. “That rehearsal was flawless,” Marga recalls, “but it didn’t feel right. We were worried that Rogier couldn’t do the concert after all. In the first rehearsal, I had already noticed how much respect the Belgian musicians had for him. Perhaps in a country farther away, it would have been different, but Rogier was a household name in Belgium. When he stopped the orchestra for short instructions, the musicians were all ears. Just watching him work with the orchestra in his own strict way gave me a secure feeling. When I heard he was good enough to be there with me on stage on the Saturday of the broadcast, I breathed a sigh of relief.”
In the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest, Marga oozed confidence while performing ‘Rechtop in de wind’; and she was rewarded with 83 jury votes, finishing fifth among twenty-two participating acts. It was the Netherlands’ best score in the competition in seven years. Marga: “Rogier congratulated me on the result and on my performance. In an aside, he thanked me for my support during the week, adding that he had found working with me a thoroughly good experience. Before Eurovision, I already admired him as a composer and conductor; his soundtrack to the film ‘Soldaat van Oranje’ is a work of art in itself. After Brussels, my respect for him had grown even further. He may have been a bit standoffish, but once you had broken through the shield of detachment, he shared his emotions. Some time later, Peter Koelewijn said he had noticed Rogier felt a click with me from the outset. From the first rehearsal in Hilversum onward, there was mutual respect. All in all, the man made an indelible impression on me.”
Backstage in Brussels, Rogier van Otterloo told journalist Piet Koster: “This will be my last Eurovision Song Contest. Next year, I won’t be there.” There is no context given to the quote; did he mean to say that he declined taking part in the future, or did he sense that the seriousness of his illness was such that he would not make the following edition? Whatever may be true, Van Otterloo was right – it was his last of five Eurovision Song Contest participations; what was more, the 1987 Eurovision final was his last-ever television performance. Rogier spent the rest of the year at home to recover. Almost everyone, including the majority of the musicians in his own orchestra, was kept in the dark about his health situation until the very last; tragically, Van Otterloo never recovered, passing away, as he did, in January 1988.
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