Oboe Player Who Collapsed Mid-Performance Remains Hospitalized

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 01:59 PM

San Francisco Symphony principal oboist William Bennett, who collapsed in mid-performance of Strauss's Oboe Concerto, remains in a hospital in "guarded" condition Tuesday.

Bennett, 56, suffered a brain hemorrhage at Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday night while performing the famously difficult concerto. He lay on the stage unconscious for several minutes, according to some witness reports. Others noted that a doctor in the audience climbed on stage to provide assistance until paramedics arrived and took him to the hospital.

Witnesses told the San Francisco Chronicle that Bennett began to sway as he was performing and eventually passed out. He held his oboe aloft long enough for a nearby violinist to grab it out of his hand.

The orchestra released a statement Tuesday that reads, in part, "Michael Tilson Thomas and the entire Symphony family send their best thoughts and well wishes to Bill and his family. He is a remarkable musician and wonderful friend, and we all hope for better news soon."

Oboe playing is known to put pressure on the cardiovascular system, as the performer must push a great deal of air through a small double reed. But while the profession is littered with stories of dizzy spells or fainting, evidence of any deeper medical effects is spotty and inconclusive.

Bennett joined the symphony in 1979 and has been its principal oboe since 1987.


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Comments [10]


Is there anything planned to commemorate his work...a concert...anything planned?

Mar. 02 2013 09:13 PM
Drew Greis from Bergenfield, NJ

I completely agree with Andrew B about the difficulty in performing this work. I too am an oboist B.Mus Eastman School 1970 & M.Mus SUNY at Stonybrook 1975. My teacher at Stonybrook, Ronald Roseman actually warned me about performing this work in 1973 saying that he didn't think that it could actually be performed live. He used a survival technique for performing works like this by expelling co2 at the end of the first phrase and continuing to the end of the next with a bigger breath of fresh air and so on until there was enough of a rest to breath normally. This worked particularly well with Schumann's Romances for oboe and I also used this technique in other orchestral and band compositions that had extremely long passages with little or no breathing opportunities.
My personal feelings about the Strauss Concerto are that if it were written by Howard Hanson instead of Richard Strauss, it would probably never be performed. I'm not a fan of this work. It would stand up better as a violin or viola concerto. Jean Francaix "Flower Clock" is a much better representative from this era of what the oboe is capable of and more virtuosic than Strauss' Concerto.
I personally feel that Mr. Bennett died while performing this was due to the thoughtlesness of the composer in not understanding what oboists actually go through physically as they perform. This was a terrible tragedy and my heart goes out to Mr. Bennets famiy and colleagues. It is sincerely a remarkable loss for the whole world.

Mar. 01 2013 12:18 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

@Paul: Thanks for highlighting Bill Bennett's medical history, obviously important. Do you really think that the circumstances & stress of solo performance had nothing to do with the incident? I'm not a doctor, so I don't know, but as a former orchestral oboist (as you might have guessed from my discussion of the concerto) I can't imagine soloist circumstances, were an insignificant cause especially in this strenuous concerto where the soloist hardly has a spare moment to breathe. Can anyone report at what point in the performance this occurred?

If R. Strauss would have known the strain on the performer cause by the lack of breathing opportunity, I wonder if he would have written in more rests.

I am saddened by the incident, and very heartened to see the classical music world so moved in response to the death of an amazing performer, not unlike that which we observed earlier this month with the passing of Maestro DePreist.

Feb. 28 2013 06:03 PM
MizKatz from San Francisco

Sad news, just announced by the San Francisco Symphony:
The San Francisco Symphony is deeply saddened to announce the passing of Principal Oboist William Bennett. Mr. Bennett had been hospitalized since Saturday, February 23, after suffering a brain hemorrhage during his performance of the Strauss Oboe Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall.

“I am heartbroken by the tragic death of Bill Bennett, which has left a terrible, sad emptiness in the hearts of the whole San Francisco Symphony family,” said Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. SF Symphony Executive Director Brent Assink added: “How fortunate we all were that Bill Bennett was our Principal Oboe. His artistry transported us. He touched audiences around the world with his music and the warmth of his personality.”

All of us here in the San Francisco Symphony family grieve this enormous loss with the entire Bay Area community. We also extend our love and support to Bill’s family.

Condolences for the Bennett Family can be dropped off at the Davies Symphony Hall box office, and messages can be posted at www.caringbridge.org/visit/williambennett1. Thank you for your support and love for Bill and his family and our orchestra musicians during this difficult time.

Feb. 28 2013 02:36 PM
Paul from Connecticut

Hot stage lights, suit and tie are irrelevant to the fact that he had a stroke.
Mr. Bennett's previous history of cancer (see story in SFGate) may be much
more relevant.

Feb. 27 2013 04:02 PM

@MizKatz - thanks for the information. It's duly noted.

Feb. 27 2013 10:57 AM
MizKatz from San Francisco

Mr. Bennett received medical attention within a matter of minutes. Concert patrons who happen to be doctors were up on the stage immediately to check vitals etc. and the paramedics from the nearby fire station arrived within five minutes to begin all the necessary prep for transport to the hospital. Our local arts critic reported the 20-minute medical delay in our local paper but has since retracted and reworded his report after many of us -- who were there -- rebutted his allegation.

Feb. 27 2013 08:56 AM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

And did I mention that it is kind of warm under the stage lights? So you have hot stage lights, a male soloist dressed in a suit and tie (women soloists often go sleeveless), and no place to breathe. Other major Oboe Concertos that come to mind, by Mozart and Vaughan Williams and the Bach Double Concerto BWV 1060, pose similar problems, but not to the extent of the Strauss.

Strauss's Oboe Concerto (1945) is an exquisite piece of music written in the atumnal years of Richard Strauss's life, after WWII. From 1945 until his death in 1949 (Strauss was in his 80s), Strauss turned away from his large form, extroverted tone-poems and opera to compose "chamber-music-like" orchestral works: Metamorphosen, the Four Last Songs, and the Duet-Concertino. These works are stunningly beautiful and deserve to be played more often. Except for the Four Last Songs, these four works don't get their due.

Feb. 26 2013 05:26 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

Quote: "Oboe playing is known to put pressure on the cardiovascular system, as the performer must push a great deal of air through a small double reed."

This is incorrect. The oboist does NOT push a great deal of air through a small double reed; precisely the opposite. Because the opening of the reed is so small, very little air actually goes through, resulting in a very unnatural breathing pattern in which there is no natural way to release the CO2 from exhalation. The tendency for young, and even intermediate oboists, is to constantly take in more air (O2) rather than to focus on exhaling separately--to combat the CO2 build-up--when the embechure is released. Because so little air goes through the tiny reed opening, the oboist must very carefully pace his breathing. This is one of the biggest challenges of being an oboist. The oboe has a smaller bore (air column) than even the piccolo--under 3mm, so the challenge is not so much pushing air through, but pacing one's breathing to as not to have a buildup of CO2.

A world-class oboist like Bennett has no doubt mastered this aspect of oboe playing. The difficulty of the Strauss concerto is that it leaves no places for the oboist to breathe--inhale or exhale. For instance, starting in the in the third bar of the first movement, the oboist plays the exposition section for 57 straight bars (approximately 2 full minutes, depending on the tempo) with barely an eighth-rest to breathe. In this YouTube clip the oboe's first movement exposition is 2:15. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKO0uAhOFyA

(The oboist in this YouTube clip is using a technique called circular breathing in which he stores are in his cheeks to push through the reed while inhaling through his nose--so as to appear that the oboist is not breathing at all. This technique was also used by oboist Alex Klein, the former principal of the Chicago Symphony, when he recorded this piece with Daniel Barenboim.)

The opening of the second movement poses the same challenge: the oboist's initial statement of the beautiful placid theme is over two minutes long without any convenient place to take a deep breath. In this YouTube clip, from 9:10-11:20. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJQbjd12U7A

Other similar long passages abound throughout the piece. For instance 12:40-14:10 in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJQbjd12U7A

As if all these long sustained passages weren't enough, the three movements (or four movements, if you count the two minute coda separately) run together--"attaca"--so there is no real break for the entire 25 minute duration of the piece.

Feb. 26 2013 05:26 PM

Wishing a speedy recovery.

Feb. 26 2013 04:42 PM

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