San Francisco Symphony principal oboist William Bennett dies

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San Francisco Symphony principal oboist and Berkeley resident William Bennett died last Thursday to the shock of friends, family, colleagues and thousands of fans. He was 56.

Bennett collapsed from a brain hemorrhage on stage Feb. 23 during his performance of the Strauss Oboe Concerto and was later hospitalized, according to a statement from the orchestra. Bennett’s condition, unfortunately, did not improve.

“(The most inspirational thing about Bennett was) definitely his absurdist wit and massive intelligence because he’s an incredibly funny and incredibly intelligent guy,” said Noah Lifschey, a close friend of Bennett. “He was kinda like the cool guy who I looked up to as a kid. He’d lend me his guitar, and he would take care of me.”

Born in New Haven, Conn., Bennett moved west to join the San Francisco Symphony in 1979 and became principal oboist in 1987, the statement added.

“Bill was a great artist, an original thinker and a wonderful man,” said Michael Tilson Thomas, musical director of the San Francisco Symphony, in the statement. “He was very generous with his attention and affection for his friends, colleagues, students and audience members. We all experienced his sunny enthusiasm for music and life. I am saddened to have lost such a true friend.”

Bennett took this affection and enthusiasm much beyond his work in the symphony. Even outside of the concert hall, his passion touched the lives of many as he contributed to music education and offered his time to help aspiring musicians.

Director of Musically Minded Academy Anna Orias, who worked as a piano instructor for Bennett’s son Danny, recalled how Bennett played an instrumental role in transforming Musically Minded Academy’s approach to music education. The diagnosis of Danny’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and his subsequent difficulty learning music led Bennett to step in to aid the academy.

“Bill and I had these discussions about what would be a better fit, and we talked about how kids should have access to all these different styles of music education,” Orias said. “We discovered the possibility that Danny would learn better if he could … move from one teacher to the other … (and) between the genres.”

Bennett’s passion for music education extended far beyond that of his own son.

“We had these monthly performance events and he would sit quietly in the audience and watch these performers,” Orias said. “Afterwards he would come talk to all these performers and give them feedback about all these specific things and ask them questions to help them think through how they were forming their style of playing.”

Bennett’s own unique style, fashioned through years of musicianship, served as an example to aspiring musicians and audiences alike.

“How fortunate we all were that Bill Bennett was our Principal Oboe,” said symphony Executive Director Brent Assink in a statement. “His artistry transported us. He touched audiences around the world with his music and the warmth of his personality.”

Contact Yvonne Ng at [email protected].

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