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Eyewitness account of soloist’s stroke in mid-concerto

A Slipped Disc reader, Christian Baldini, reports the following account of William Bennett’s collapse in the middle of the Richard Strauss oboe concerto on Saturday night in San Francisco. The latest hospital bulletin says he is in ‘guarded condition’ after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. The entire music community worldwide is holding its breath for news of his recovery.

william bennett

Just two minutes into the performance, Bill collapsed on stage, bringing the music to a full stop. That was a moment of great tension, pure, cold silence, and fear for his condition. One audience member who was sitting in the first row jumped (literally) up onto the stage and stayed by him. She was a doctor, and after about 10 minutes he woke up and she assisted him. She was asking what his name was and it seemed like he couldn’t talk back to her. The paramedics took about 25 minutes to get there and they finally strapped him to take him to a local hospital on a gurney. He is reportedly alert, accompanied by his wife.

Further eyewitness accounts, some suggesting the paramedics arrived sooner, appear in Comments (below). we have recived the following communication from Oliver Theil, director of communications at the SF Symphony:

For the record, Bill Bennett received immediate medical attention by in-house personnel on stage following his collapse. Paramedics arrived within 6-7 minutes and immediately began attending to Mr. Bennett on stage. It did not take 25 minutes for paramedics to arrive. Mr. Bennett was transported to a local hospital within 20 minutes.


William Bennett has written previously about the concerto:

William Bennett, long time principal oboist of the San Francisco
Symphony, describes the difficulties of the piece:
One of the challenges of the Strauss Concerto is that the oboe
voice is a constant ingredient and requires an air supply that
Strauss might have imagined easily available following his
experiments with the Vienna Philharmonic and the compressed-air
hoses he recommends for his Alpine Symphony.

Strauss wrote these long phrases in the concerto with Bernhard
Samuel’s aerophone (or aerophor) in mind. This device was patented in 1912 to help wind
instrument players. A small bellows, worked by one foot, communicated by means of a tube within the
corner of the mouth of the player, leaving him free to carry on his
normal breathing process through his nose whilst his mouth is
supplied with the air required for his instrument by means of the bellows.
[Steinberg, Michael. The Concerto. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.]

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  1. I am curious to know how much playing the oboe might be a contributing factor. Any docs out there??

    • Malcolm James says:

      Particularly as 2 minutes into the piece he would just have come, or just have been coming, to the end of the notorious 57-bar unbroken stretch of playing.

    • Robert von Gutfeld says:

      We are all in shock to hear about this tragic occurrence. We have known the Bennett family for over 55 years and have loved and admired them for as many years . We wish Billy the best in the world and a speedy full recovery.

      With deep affection,
      Bob and Deanna von Gutfeld
      New York, New York

  2. eitan bezalel says:

    Wishing speedy recovery!

  3. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    This concerto is notorious for its technical challenges especially concerning breath control. John de Lancie (1921-2002) visited Strauss at the end of WWII and asked if he had ever considered writing an oboe concerto considering the great solos he wrote for that instrument in his orchestral works and operas. The answer from Strauss at that time was “no.” De Lancie claims that his visit probably inspired Strauss to write the work, premiered around 1946. John de Lancie even created an edition which gives the oboist a bit of relief by having other solo winds take over some of the heroically long phrases. To my knowledge, de Lancie never performed the original work in public although he did record it in the mid-80s.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Given Bill Bennett’s recovery from serious illness a few years ago, may he again recover fully and continue to contribute to the musical life of San Francisco and beyond.

    • Flower Clock says:

      It was a mark of Mr. de Lancie’s professionalism that he did not perform the premiere of the Strauss Concerto. Strauss completed the work and offered Mr. de Lancie 1st rights to the premiere, but de Lancie held the position of 2nd Oboe with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the time.

      Correct orchestra protocol is such that Principal players should be offered concertos before section members. Mr. de Lancie respected that protocol and I believe passed the opportunity onto Phila.’s Principal Oboe, his teacher, the great Marcel Tabuteau.

      I don’t believe Mr. Tabuteau ever chose to do the premiere, but Mr. de Lancie would not overstep his position. It was an act of honor and respect and he set a strong example for generations of orchestral players who have come after him.

      • The world premiere wasn’t offered to either de Lancie or Tabuteau. It was given by the Tonhalle Orchester and their principal oboe Marcel Saillet. I do believe though that Strauss offered the rights to the US premiere to de Lancie, recognizing that he had given him the idea. I think it’s a little silly that he wasn’t able to play the premiere – after all, it was due to him that Strauss started writing the piece. I get that it wouldn’t have been courteous to his teacher and principal colleague Tabuteau to play the premiere in Philadelphia, but he could have played it with another ensemble.

    • Byron Hanson says:

      Dear Mr. Fitzpatrick – until this morning I had never listened to any recording John DeLancie made of the Strauss Concerto, and i do not know if he ever performed or recorded the original version. You probably have read Michael Steinberg’s comment that says DeLancie recorded the “edited version” or “student version” that he premiered at Interlochen in 1964; that version or one very similar to it is what I heard this morning , conducted by Andre Previn. A point I don’t remember seeing mentioned anywhere regarding the “DeLancie version” is that, in addition to having his wind colleagues play some bits here and there, he also cut entirely some of the short repetitive passages — at least he did so in the recording and his first performance of the work at Interlochen on August 30, 1964.
      I attended both the concert and its rehearsal, and marked in my miniature score all of the excisions and substitutions that Mr. DeLancie made. Of course, he could have revised his version any number of ways later on for the recording and/or other performances have may have given over the next four decades. I’m sorry not to be specific as to what he did here, but I lent the score to someone long ago and never got it back. I’d like to follow this thread further at some point.
      Final comments – his performance at Interlochen was the last of five evening concerts the Philadelphia Orchestra gave on August 26-30, 1964. They played seven Strauss works here in that Strauss centennial year, and the fifth program began with Brahms [Haydn Variations & Double Concerto] follow by Strauss [Love Scene from Feuersnot, Oboe Concerto, & Eulenspiegel]. An amusing moment came in the DeLancie rehearsal when Ormandy was repeatedly unsuccessful at bringing the orchestra back into the fray for the third movement (Vivace). His confusing preparatory gestures resulted in the orchestra playing their 2nd-beat entrance WITH the soloist on the downbeat instead of answering him, and after trying it 2-3 times to get things right, EO left the stage in exasperation (implying that it was the orchestra’s problem) and told assistant conductor Bill Smith to rehearse it with the orchestra. Of course all Bill really needed to do was to orally clarify the situation. He then practiced it once, the orchestra knew exactly what to do and all was well!

  4. Terry Carlson says:

    25 minutes for paramedics to arrive? That seems way unacceptable.

    • This is perturbing me. Once can’t change what happened, of course, but this feels insane to me. The fact that they took so long would contribute very significantly and greatly to problems, since it was a brain hemorrhage.

    • Despite all the reports, it did not take 25 minutes for paramedics to arrive. They were there within 10 minutes, maybe less. I was there so I know — witnessed the whole thing from above in the terrace seats.

      • Great to hear, thanks for posting this.

      • So did I, and from the same vantage point. Although the stress factor alters things like sense of duration, it definitely was more like 10 minutes, not twenty-five.

    • Shelley Carroll says:

      From the time the concerto started at 8:20 PM until the paramedics and firefighters took him out of Davies at 8:40 PM was a total of 20 minutes. Part of that time was him playing, but the rest of the 15 minutes or so was response and arrival, starting an IV and oxygen, doing an EKG, applying a neck brace (since he fell from a standing position, not from a chair), and transferring him to the gurney. Although it felt like a VERY long time, actually it
      was not

  5. Claire Callahan says:

    I was under the impression that the oboe provides much RESISTANCE, compared with many other wind instruments, and under these circumstances, the problem is actually letting air escape once in a while, rather than not having enough air. For example, the Flute requires the most air per second of playing, because there is no resistance (the air is divided by the embouchure) and half of it goes out while the other half goes into the flute. I play flute but not oboe. A sister of mine played oboe, and she, as well as other obists, have explained that the reed is so small and tight that you must let extra air out in order to take a new breath – and I have heard this phenomenon in orchestras many times. The resistance, however, is very strong, and I imagine this causes lots of stress on the organs forcing the air out. But as wind instruments go, the oboe requires letting air go, rather than using it all up and gasping for breath, as in playing the flute.

    • Claire, you’re right. I was an oboe/English hornist, and for those like me who never mastered circular breathing, the problem is as you describe. That and just breathing in order to avoid passing out. Thousands of oboists have come and gone without incident, so I suspect that Mr. Bennet’s problem was of another origin, perhaps aggravated by those long spells of playing in the Strauss. But I’m no doctor.

      In response to Flower Clock, I am grateful for De Lancie’s recording of the Strauss. It’s a treasure in my collection. He was principal in Philly for many years after Tabuteau passed from the scene, so if he never played the Strauss there, that’s a real shame.

      • Claire Callahan says:

        I am suspecting that his previous radiation/chemo for tonsil cancer in 2004 made him at risk for this. He did not just faint, which can happen to anyone who is unused to standing for long intervals. How many times have we sat in the orchestra and witnessed chorus members slumping off their perches as they stand for long periods during an oratorio. But this was not fainting. He had a wonderful review for his performance the day before!

  6. Was it actually 25 minutes until the paramedics arrived? It certainly was a long time. I was in row CC, looking on in horror, and it seemed like forever that he was lying there on the stage with about ten people around him. But I was thinking it was really more like 10 minutes. Then they had him on the stage for another 10 or so, stabilizing him, and then strapped him to the gurney and exited with him, to applause.

    Yes, Mr Bennett had just finished the infamous 57 opening bars that contain no rests (but he took several “luftpausen”), gracefully and beautifully. He had taken out his reed and was moistening it while awaiting his next entrance. Then he started swaying and went down, folding to his right while holding up his oboe so a violinist could grab it.

    Fingers crossed; intentions/prayers/good thoughts in progress.

    • Malcolm James says:

      I imagine that everyone knew it was serious and no-one knew whether he would survive long enough to be taken to hospital. In those circumstances it’s not surprising if a minute seems like an hour.

  7. I hope that Bennett recovers from this event! My last visit to the SFO was in 1984 when my brother-in-law, Eduardo Mata conducted with guest artist Yehudi Menuhin. A memorable concert for sure. He passed away on my birthday in 1995 when he crashed his airplane in Cuernavaca, Mexico… :-(

  8. A cerebral hemorrhage occurs when a blood vessel, almost always an artery, ruptures (bursts) and blood is discharged into the intracranial cavity under arterial pressure (ie, forcefully). If the location of the rupture is inside the brain, the hemorrhage is “intracerebral,” if around the brain, it is “subarachnoid.” In younger individuals, the most common cause is a re-existing abnormality of an artery, such as a aneurysm (like a berry on a stem) or a “vascular malformation” (tangle of aberrant arterial branches). Both of these arterial abnormalities usually relate to conditions or vulnerabilities present at birth, but both can also, less likely, relate to later injuries to the arteries of various kinds, including radiation injuries. The precipitating cause of such hemorrhages–a triggering event determining their time of occurrence–can include changes in intracranial pressure dynamics, like the increased pressure inside the rigid enclosed skull caused by playing the oboe (called a “Valsalva” maneuver, bearing down that is required to force air through the small opening in the reed). Another precipitating cause could be a temporary increase in blood pressure related to performance anxiety when faced with the entire Strauss Oboe Concerto ahead of you in front of over a thousand listeners. Recovery depends on where the leak ing the artery occurred, the exact location determining what part of the brain might have been injured by the expanding blood under pressure. Alternatively, an artery with a leaking hole may go into spasm in an attempt to staunch the leak and thus deprive the part of the brain it normally supplies of the necessary perfusion with blood. Surgery as soon as possible to close the leak is usually the best treatment. Often it can be done endovascularly (through a catheter threaded into the artery and advanced to the leak).

    • Thank you, Dr. Ellenberger, for your edification on the potential triggers of a cerebral hemorrhage. A professional oboist myself, I had wondered if playing the oboe could itself have triggered this event or if that would have had no effect at all. As a migraineur, my neurologist has shown interest in determining if my migraines might be induced by my oboe-playing. While I have not been able to make a definitive association, I do know that the back-pressure–is this the “Valsalva” maneuver?–involved in playing certainly never HELPS a migraine!

      As to Bill Bennett, he is a phenomenal musician and artist and one of the finest oboists I have ever had the pleasure to hear and to have as a friend. I pray that any delay in the arrival of medical assistance will prove to be a non-issue and that he will recover. My thought and prayers are with him and his family as well as his colleagues in the San Francisco Symphony who I know are greatly disturbed by the event and extremely concerned about Bill.

      Susan Spector
      Second Oboe
      MET Orchestra

    • Rick Leder says:

      Thank you, Dr. Ellenberger, for those explanations.
      Our fervent hope for Bill’s recovery will no doubt depend on the knowledge and skill of his doctors (not to mention the paramedics who gave him immediate care).
      Is the “cerebral hemorrhage” mentioned above also called a “stroke?” And is the exact location of the blood spillage a major determinant of both the functional damage and the recovery prospects?
      As an old college classmate and a colleague of Bill’s, I am still in shock and dismay and do not know what to expect. I will be listening for news….

  9. Thanks, Dr. Ellenberger. That is a great explanation.

    Bill Bennett is the best oboist I’ve ever heard. He is also a brilliant, funny, highly engaging fellow. My heart goes out to his family. I hope he’ll recover and continue to share his gifts with the very lucky people of the Bay area.

    A longtime fan from the East Coast

  10. Jenny Sperry says:

    Thank you Dr. Ellenberger. I played oboe with Bill in college and we’ve remained good friends for decades. I am an extremely great admirer of his both professionally and personally. As a player, absolute conviction, imagination, real beauty of tone and phrasing. As a person, unabashed honesty, courage, brains, wit and charm. This is heartbreaking news and it’s awful not knowing. I always knew the oboe was potentially dangerous. The opening of the Strauss is akin to being held underwater for 3 minutes in front of 1000 people after looking at microscopic differences in reeds, sharpening your knife to a razor, making subtle adjustments while stressed and then practicing your fingers off. Don’t do it unless you have to. This means you, Bill. Get well, get well.

    Jenny Sperry

    CFP, ADPA, formerly oboist here and there

    • Gary Schultheis says:

      Just heard the news about Bill- am stunned.
      I’m a bassoonist amongst other things, and
      went to college with Bill. We did a lot of playing
      together, became good friends. I got know
      his entire family. Bill is a wonderful special person
      alongside his considerable musical gifts.
      As are-were- his other family members.
      Bill and I have kept up our correspondance from
      across the country, and seen each other
      from time to time, often at politically climactic
      times where his sense of humor saved the
      day. I was so glad that he recovered from throat cancer,
      and I am hoping he can again call upon his strengths
      to the utmost, and make another full recovery.
      I also am sending his family my most fervent
      wishes for peace of mind and good health.
      Hi Jenny it has been a long time and I hope you
      are well.

  11. Benjamin F. Ward says:

    I just heard this terrible news, and my thoughts and prayers are with you. I remember our times together in the Berkeley College Chamber Players at Yale. (That Hindemith Sonata for Oboe and Piano was a special highlight for me.) And it was a thrill to have your two sisters join us on occasion. It was so much fun for me to get Vladimir Ashkenazy, whom I had gotten to know during his stay here at Duke, to deliver you that latter in the middle of rehearsal!! I am still waiting for your revenge.
    But for now we are all waiting on your full recovery. Please know that all of your friends from Berkeley College at Yale — and many others — are with you, and we know that you will have a rich and full recovery. Our love to your mother, Fran.
    Much, much love.

    Benjamin F. Ward
    Pianist, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Arabic, and German Studies, Duke University

  12. Maria Shao says:

    I attended the concert with my family and must say in response to an earlier post that it was NOT 25 minutes before the paramedics got there. I’d say it was about 5 minutes. Then they worked on Mr. Bennett while he was lying prone on the stage for about 20 minutes, and then took him out on a stretcher. He had gotten through the 57-measure unbroken opening of the concerto in what sounded like a flawless, wafting manner. After the opening, during his rest as the orchestra played, he took his reed out of the oboe and adjusted it. As he made his second entry into the music, he collapsed. I’m not sure if he played any notes of the second passage before he fell to the right. As he lay there mostly motionless, I suspected it might have been a stroke. Eventually, he moved his left arm and propped his left leg up, but never moved his right side. It was the first SF Symphony my teenage kids have ever gone to, and my son plays oboe. We were all heartsick and horrified. We wish only the best for Mr. Bennett and his family.

  13. Meredith Moseley says:

    Shocking, sad news. I’ve had season tickets for several years and have always been a fan of Mr. Bennett’s playing. I wish him a full and speedy recovery!

    Thank you to everyone who has posted comments in support of this wonderful musician. It’s refreshing to see such civil and optimistic interactions online in a comments forum.

  14. Scott Hemplnig says:

    I, too, was a college co-musician with Bill. In freshman year we did the Britten Oboe Quartet. It was an amazing privilege to play with him. He was so patient with us string players. Andy Apter and Chris McCormack were the others. I remember like yesterday the lilting beauty of his variation in the Pulcinella Suite senior year. He wore his excellence so lightly, and was great fun to be with. I still use certain phrases (non-repeatable) he used.

  15. Kevin Moore says:

    It was Mitch Millier who first played this piece in the US.

    • At the time, he was Mitchell Miller, and was a fine musician. Don’t know if he kept his oboe chops, but I worked a couple of pops concerts with him and he was easy going and fun to work with.

      • Tell us more. He was a fine musician who became a bit of a music-biz monster.

        • He was active as an oboist back in my student days in the late ’50s. We all listed him among the top players: the Gombergs, deLancie, – the Philadelphia crowd. Absorbing recordings of their playing was a big part of learning the game.

          Then he dropped out of sight and ‘Sing Along With Mitch’ and that smarmy persona came along. But he was good to work with, if a bit aloof…

  16. Oboists: please do not think that playing the oboe or playing the Strauss Concerto is life-threatening. Bill Bennett almost certainly harbored some underlying abnormality, like a cerebral aneurysm, that was the primary cause of his hemorrhage. Most such abnormalities come to diagnosis only when they cause disaster like a hemorrhage. The immediate mortality rate after a cerebral hemorrhage is 50%. It is important to learn what that cause was in Bill’s case to allay fears of oboists around the globe. I think Bill would agree. Although I didn’t know Bill, I wish I had, and extend condolences to his family, including his large musical family.

    I (a flutist) sat next to Mitch Miller in an orchestra in 1962 (when I too was at Yale) in an orchestra for a fundraiser. His reed was totally black from, I presume, a smoking habit and a distaste for making reeds.

    • Many years ago, a colleague, Peggy Luchessi, who played percussion with the SFSO for many years, had become a masters swimmer and was enjoying going to meets and competing very much. After a meet she was happily talking and collapsed – the same thing happened to her. It can happen to anyone – although there was some exertion beforehand in each case, something was going to cause the rupture at some point in their lives. She was probably about 10 years older than Bill was.

      However, I cannot help but suspect that treatment for tonsil cancer in 2004-5 could have been a risk factor here. In any case, he died doing what he obviously LOVED.


      • Ok-tonsil cancer and a smoker…the history is becoming clearer.
        Thanks Dr. Ellenberger for the clarification.
        What an amazing musician.
        The memory of Bill Bennett will stay in our music memories.
        Joanne Loewy
        The Louis Armstrong Ctr for Music & Medicine
        Beth Israel Medical Center, NYC

      • TrumpetCat says:

        Claire, I played in the opera orchestra with Peggy for many years. She was only about 51 when she collapsed and died. She was such a warm presence in the orchestra, she was missed very much.
        I was so pleased to see that her surviving section mates had a sign made for the Percussion room door. “The Peggy Lucchesi Percussion Room” Unfortunately, when the Opera House was renovated after the earthquake, the door was replaced and the sign is no more. I wish the guys would have it remade!

  17. Freya White-Henry says:

    As an SFSO concert goer, I loved hearing William Bennett play…I am devastated by the news of his death. My deepest sympathy to Mr.Bennett’s family and friends. Such a sudden loss … My own father died suddenly in the same way…on our return from vacation…It was incomprehensible to a nine-year-old.

    I learned to love the oboe as a child attending the Cork [Ireland] Symphony Orchestra Saturday morning rehearsals – programs especially designed to introduce children to the Symphony. Players explained and played their different instruments to our delight. I will never forget famed oboist, Leon Goossens, who played with such energy and joy and explained the intricacy of the music and the instrument…What fun it all was!…I became an oboe fan for life!


    I want to thank you Bill, Leon, and all musicians who share their gifts and bring such joy and light into the world…It would be a darker place without them…Mille, mille remerciements…

  18. I read that recordings of William Bennett’s performances of both the Mozart and Strauss Oboe concertos were broadcast. Sadly I was unable to listen to the broadcast.

    Did anyone record the broadcast and if so, please could I request a CD copy if possible?
    I will gladly pay any costs incurred.

    Laurence A Frankel (London, England)

    PS My brother Jeremy lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco so no international postage would be necessary.

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