William Bennett, San Francisco Symphony Oboist, Dies at 56

Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 02:10 PM

William Bennett, the San Francisco Symphony's principal oboist who collapsed while performing the Strauss Oboe Concerto on Saturday, died Thursday morning in a San Francisco hospital.

Bennett had suffered a brain hemorrhage while performing the famously difficult concerto and was taken to a local hospital. He was 56 years old.

Musicians and colleagues remembered Bennett as a warm personality as well as a gifted and spontaneous musician.

“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,” San Francisco music director Michael Tilson Thomas said in a statement. "Bill was a great artist, an original thinker, and a wonderful man. I am saddened to have lost such a true friend."

Bennett joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1979 and became principal oboist in 1987. He suffered health problems in the past, including a bout of tonsil cancer in 2005, which was treated by surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy. At the time, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was concerned that the tumor would impact his ability to play oboe, but he bounced back after a year-long absence.

Born in New Haven, CT in 1956, Bennett was the son of a Yale professor. He got his undergraduate degree at Yale, where he was known not only as a skilled musician but an occasional caricaturist, illustrating other musicians in his spare time [view an example]. He went on to study at Juilliard, then joined the San Francisco Symphony.

In 1992 he gave the world premiere of John Harbison's Oboe Concerto, which was commissioned for him by the Symphony. He was also known for improvising cadenzas, as he did in a performance of the Mozart Concerto in C Major in San Francisco in 2006.

Bennett is survived by his wife and two sons. Watch him play the oboe solo in Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony below.


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Comments [21]


I was glad to hear that MrBennett did not pass on stage which would have depressed the audience, but the music continued to placate those who felt the sadness. The audience only found out days after concerning his demise.
from Henry

Apr. 25 2013 04:58 PM
John Mercer from South Carolina

As a fellow oboist and musician, I was shocked and immensely saddened at William Bennett's passing. He had such a beautiful American oboe sound and playing ability that one could only dream of. The world already misses this fantastic oboist and musician, I am sure. What a talent and tragic loss!

Apr. 02 2013 10:28 PM
Robert from London

It's much closer to the heavens at the mountain top. May we all have such a passing.

Mar. 06 2013 10:43 AM
Blair Tindall from Los Angeles, CA

What a wonderful, generous person and musician. Thank you, Dr. Goldschlager for tending to Bill, and thank you Bill, for being who you were -- and a champion for old friends like me, which I'll never forget. You transformed my New York and San Francisco years into something truly special.

Mar. 01 2013 06:52 PM
Carole Thibodeaux from San Francisco

I feel so very blessed to have heard William Bennett perform with San Francisco Symphony so many times. His passing is a great loss to all of us.

Mar. 01 2013 12:04 PM

Little short of being 'tragic', (and particularly so for his immediate family).

Mar. 01 2013 11:12 AM
Robert J. von Gutfeld from New York, New York 10025

The death of Bill Bennett, someone I met when he was a few months old, is a great shock and a great loss to me and to the world. Bill was extraordinary, much like is brilliant father and mother, as talented as his entire family, including his sisters, Jean and Nancy. His musicianship was incomparable. The tragedy of his passing will be felt for years to come.

May all the Bennett families find peace in knowing how much he was loved.

Robert von Gutfeld

Mar. 01 2013 10:25 AM
Sue Koppett from Menlo Park,CA

I am not a musician, a musicologist or a family friend, just an ordinary member of the
audience. Mr. Bennett's tone was beautiful and clear; he was a remarkable musician, and, by all accounts, a wonderful human being. Condolences to his wife and sons and all who had the pleasure of hearing him play.

Mar. 01 2013 10:23 AM
Nora Goldschlager

Jeremy - it was not I in the 1st row - I was in the 5th row.
As a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital I can tell you (and everyone) that the 'chaos' was actually organized and I was proud of my profession. Baranchuk immediately called for a doctor at the time of the collapse - what did he sense?
I asked the symphony personnel to make sure that backstage there would always be a blood pressure cuff, an automatic defibrillator, and oxygen - hope this is realized.
However many times we deal with these things, one is never really ready for the next one - therein is the humanism.
We all miss that magnificent musician already and forever.

Mar. 01 2013 09:25 AM

My sympathies to his family and to music fans everywhere for this sad loss. An incredible musician but also apparently a remarkable person.

Leaving this world relatively quickly, painlessly and in the midst of doing what you love, is probably the best that most of us can hope for.

Mar. 01 2013 08:49 AM
Juan Carlos Correa

Very sad news. It's sad when a very talented and young person dies so suddenly. My sympathies to the family and to the whole orquestra, as well to the world of classicalmusic lovers.

Mar. 01 2013 08:42 AM
Cho-Liang Lin from Taiwan

I am devastated by this news. Absolutely saddened. Bill and I were next door neighbors in the dorms at Marlboro Festival in 1979. We teased each other endlessly, I to him about his obsessive reed making, he to me about the incessant practicing. There was much banging on the walls followed by great laughter.
I hope future generations of music geeks will remember Bill more for his beautiful playing than for being in the legion of famed musicians collapsing on stage like Dimitri Mitropoulos and Giuseppe Sinopoli.
I will miss this friend.

Mar. 01 2013 05:26 AM
Terry Parker from San Francisco

I heard Mr. Bennett interviewed on the radio last week, in advance of his performance, and found him to be heartwarmingly sensitive, eloquent in his converse, reflectively experienced, and with a lovely sense of humor. Sad for the loss. Best wishes to his family. Very sorry.

Feb. 28 2013 10:57 PM
Jeremy Constant from Oakland


I would like to personally thank you on behalf of all of us on stage for the help you gave Bill and Peggy. It was very chaotic and it was a comfort to have someone there, professionally going through the "checklist" to help ascertain what was happening and what should be done. I was sitting on the inside first stand of the first violins that night. Were you the woman doctor in the front row? I know that having you there must have also been a great comfort to Peggy. I can't imagine witnessing your spouse collapsing on stage and also being the first responder..

Thanks again

Feb. 28 2013 07:30 PM
Scott Spiegler from Framingham, MA

Truly tragic! A terrible loss to his poor family, the orchestra and to the music world at large. So sorry to learn about this, Scott

Feb. 28 2013 06:59 PM
Nora Goldschlager

I was at the concert during which Bennett collapsed and was one of the physicians who responded to the collapse. The shock in the audience was palpable. His handing his oboe off to save his instrument was remarkable. The applause ovation as Bennett left the area with the medics was at an extraordinary decibel level. Perhaps he heard it; I hope so.
I listened to Bennett for years as a symphony subscriber - there was no one like him.
A legendary musician and person.

Feb. 28 2013 06:14 PM
morty rosner from Teaneck, NJ

I was charmed by William Bennett's comments about playing the oboe on MTT's "The Making of a Symphony: Tchaikovsky 4.I noticed him again in the SFS Mahler DVD. What splendid playing and what a fine orchestra. The series has enabled me to meet MTT and some of the principals of this great ensemble. I was saddened to read about WB's collapse yesterday, thought about him from time to time today, and now see the sad coda. Thank you for choosing the slow mvmt from Tchaikovsky 4, a fitting elegy.

Feb. 28 2013 04:52 PM

Neil, Anon put it in a coarse way, but I think I understand what he was getting at. If one HAS to bid farewell to the world, it seems auspicious for it to happen while you're doing what you love. A quick illness following a productive life beats years of watching yourself decline, in my view. It's still tragic, though.

Feb. 28 2013 03:52 PM
Neil Schnall

Good thing you chose to remain "Anon". What a thoughtless thing to say! He may also have been devoted to his wife and family. And I doubt he'd have chosen to die at 56. Also, by the way, he didn't die onstage but in hospital.

Feb. 28 2013 03:30 PM

Performing as a soloist on the instrument you devoted your life to ... what a fantastic way to die!

Feb. 28 2013 03:14 PM
Maryanne from Oakland Gardens

A sad loss, not only to his family but also to his orchestra and his audience. I offer my sympathy to all.

Feb. 28 2013 03:05 PM

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