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Dreadful news: San Francisco oboist dies in hospital

William Bennett, the San Francisco Symphony principal who collapsed while playing the Richard Strauss concerto on Saturday night, died today in hospital. He was 56 years old and had been in the orchestra for 33 years, 25 of them as principal. An outstanding musician, he had friends in every major orchestra. The world of music mourns tonight.

william bennett

The orchestra made the following comments in a press release:

“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.  “Bill was a great artist, an original thinker, and a wonderful man.  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.”

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. We are all stunned at his sudden passing. His legacy will continue to be felt through his countless students and in the performances of the San Francisco Symphony for many years to come. While all of us here, the musicians, board and staff of the San Francisco Symphony, grieve with the entire Bay Area community, we also extend our love and support to Bill’s family. “

Bennett was born in 1956 in New Haven, Connecticut.  He joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1979 and became Principal Oboist in 1987. During his many years as a mainstay of the Orchestra, he attracted the esteem and admiration not just of colleagues, but of listeners.

The entire San Francisco Symphony family offers their deep condolences to the Bennett family.   The San Francisco Symphony is accepting condolences on behalf of the Bennett family at 201 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102. Messages can be posted at

He is survived by his wife, Peggy, and two sons.

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  1. My heart goes out to the family, friends and the orchestra. A devastating loss to our music community.

  2. Oh how sad. So young. So brilliant, and by all I hear a marvelous person.
    So sad.

  3. Michael Hurshell says:

    A tragedy.

  4. George Daugherty says:

    I am shocked and saddened. At only 56 years old, Bill was in his prime, and was a remarkable musician, and a remarkable person. His sound was so rich and beautiful, and his technical skills extraordinary. He was a musician’s musician, a joy to conduct, a joy to listen to, a joy to know. I send all of my heartfelt thoughts and condolences to the entire San Francisco Symphony family, who I know are in deep mourning at this moment . . . and of course, my thoughts are very much with Bill’s family.

  5. richardcarlisle says:

    A time of mourning for us all, a time to savor and appreciate his contribution to fine music.

  6. Ken Fitzgerald says:

    Such a sad end to a brave, inspired life. Prayers and thoughts to his family, and those lucky enough to know him.

  7. I was in attendance on Saturday when Mr. Bennett collapsed. I know we were all hoping that he had simply fainted — so saddened to hear later it was a stroke and even more devastated to hear this news today. Another superb musician taken far too young. May he rest in peace and his memory live on.

  8. Robert in London says:

    Sad sad sad.

  9. Elizabeth Susskind Blodgett says:

    Such sad news indeed. I have spent many years as a SFS Chorus member watching Bill play. He exuded profound musicality as well as humility and of course played so beautifully. He will be much missed and of course my heart goes out to his family.

  10. Sarah Livingston Winterfield says:

    A dreadful, unbelievable loss for the world of music. I knew Bill way back in the 70s when I was in college and he was in high school (we were both students being mentored by the wonderful Richard Killmer). Bill was that rarity–an overwhelmingly gifted young musician who was also humble and funny, a polymath, and simply a delightful person. My heart goes out to his family.

  11. Michael J Stewart says:

    This is very sad news indeed.

  12. Very sad news.. RIP

  13. Richard Boyle says:

    This was the first news I heard when I tuned into KDFC this morning. I can only weep at this great loss to the world of music. William Bennett’s music brought delight and wonder to so many people. He will be sorely missed. May his rest be with the holy ones in light and in the paradise of God. If indeed there is a heaven, then music must surely be its language.

  14. I was at the Concert on Saturday and prayed for Bill when he collapsed and hope that it was nothing more than just exhaustion. My heart goes out to his families and friends. He’s in heaven playing a beautiful piece for all of us to hear now. Rest in Peace Bill.

  15. harold braun says:

    Horrible news. May it be some kind of consolation for his family and friends that the last thing he did was practising his art on the highest level and thus giving joy and beauty to the people who were there to listen.
    And by doing so making their lives more enchanting and worthy.

  16. At least Bill’s passing was quick and he died doing what he loved to do, and he was so good at it too! All i know is that the Heavenly Orchestra now has a wonderful oboe player and a pretty cool guy too!

  17. Keith Charles Edwards says:

    My friend passed this along to me. I will pray for his eternal repose and for his family’s comfort in this difficult time. Life is short and we must be ready. Take heart. He died while doing what he enjoyed. It was sudden and hopefully he felt no pain. Grant him eternal rest and light perpetual shine upon him. May his soul and all the faithful departed rest in peace.

  18. Paul Bubendey says:

    I will always remember a performance of Das Lied von der Erde about 15 years ago when I lived in San Francisco, . Bill’s playing went not to your head, not to your heart but right to your soul. I always think about him whenever I hear this work. He will be greatly missed.

  19. I did not know William Bennet personally though his beautiful and sensitive playing is has always been such an inspiration to me. As a fellow oboist he was like a brother. If I was to play a work that was in the SFSO repertoire, I would frequently listen to Bill’s playing and always be moved and gain so much…. I have to say it again…. inspiration.
    I thank you Bill for your dedication and commitment to our art and the great legacy you have left for us all. Your playing lives on and will continue to inspire us all.
    Good bless you, your family, and all your colleagues.
    Laurence A Frankel, London, England

  20. Anneke van der Veen says:

    Attending the Open Rehearsal yesterday and hearing this news was so sad.
    Hearing the beautiful rich sound of his oboe at every open rehearsal concert for the last 20 years was such a treat.

    Feel so privileged to have been able to hear him play and talk with him about it.
    And will play him this Saturday on my classical music show at KWMR in Point Reyes Station.

    Anneke van der Veen

  21. richardcarlisle says:

    The family of fine music devotees is diminished with the loss of any part of an entirety that transends and encompasses members through inexplicable love of a mysterious and magical substance instantly and universally understood and appreciated.

    In his role: a cord helping to bind us as one, Norman Lebrecht can’t be given credit enough…. if he were a chord it would be C Major.

    A youtube showing William Bennett in performance would be a privilege for those of us unfamiliar with him until now, if someone is able to accomplish it.

  22. Very beautiful playing by Bill Bennett in the Tchaikovsky. His teacher, Robert Bloom, was one of the great players of the earlier generation. May the legacy of the American school stay strong in Bill’s students. RIP

  23. Melody Trauthwein says:

    I am very sorry to hear this. I remember meeting him backstage when I was a young music major and he very kindly allowed me to attend one of his master classes. No reason for him to do that but the generosity of his heart. Very generous, very kind, incredible skill and musicianship. He will be missed.

  24. Roberto Gonzalez says:

    His playing in the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony was sublime… as in all other repertoire, and he will be missed, BUT, my God, he went doing the thing he loved the most. That is the best way for a musician to go, not retired, but horn in hand, making sensual music live for listeners and music lovers… YES, I grant it’s horrifying in front of others, but still, he was in his prime, doing what he loved…

  25. richardcarlisle says:

    Privileged indeed… magnificent video…. greatly indebted as always.

  26. This is so very sad and, coming so soon after the death of Kieron Moore (LSO Principal), it is a double hit for the oboe world and those of us who inhabit it professionally or as amateurs. As others have mentioned, at least he was able to continue his art form to the last.

    His family are very much in my thoughts and prayers at this time. RIP William.

  27. Was very sad to hear of William Bennett’s death today. I had the pleasure of not only hearing him play but also meeting him during recording sessions with Decca (London) in the days of Mr Blomstedt. A great loss to the SFSO I’m sure. My sympathy goes out to his family and all that knew him.

  28. I heard him interviewed on the radio last week, discussing this performance. He was a very bright, interesting man!

  29. Thomas Outt says:

    Very sad to learn of this. Staggering loss. To his family & friends, may you be consoled in your grief.

  30. Howard Higson says:

    My most compelling memory of Mr. Bennett, among so many, is that of his performance in Brahms’ Nanie almost 25 years ago, recorded and hopefully still available, when I was in the SF Symphony Chorus. All I can say is: please find and listen to this beautiful recording – there could be no finer gift of his or any life than to have left such a treasure. It is deeply evident in his playing, even in recording, that here was a truly devine spirit, filling to the brim the souls of not just all fortunate listeners, but no doubt that of the composer, himself. To have heard him in person, performing this piece and so many others, was truly an honor and will be with me forever.

  31. I have many wonderful memories of Bennett’s performances with SFSO. We’re fortunate that some of those are preserved in both audio CDs and video/DVDs. One of my favorites is the DVD of Beethoven’s Eroica with some priceless comments by Bennett about the the oboe in Beethoven symphonies. In particular, listen to and watch him play and reflect on death as expressed in the oboe lines in the funeral march of that piece. Others have mentioned Bennett’s beautiful solos in the Tchaikovsky Fourth, but don’t miss Bennett’s incomparable oboe solos in the SFSO concert performance of Mahler’s First in the “Keeping Score” DVD. It’s capped at the end when MTT calls for a solo bow from Bennett, who stands with a look of pure happiness on his face.

  32. Margaret Johnson says:

    My husband and I were visiting San Francisco recently and were privileged to hear Mr. Bennett’s last full performance on the afternoon before he had the stroke. We flew home the next day, to Canada, and didnt know of his stroke until our SF friends let us know; we were so sad. This evening, I thought to Google and see how he was doing. We are so sad that he died, but his performance on that Friday afternoon will stay with us.
    Blessings to all who loved him.

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