William Bennett, the San Francisco Symphony's principal oboist and one of its musical anchors for several decades, died Thursday. Bennett, who was 56, had collapsed onstage while performing Saturday at Davies Symphony Hall, suffering a brain hemorrhage.
"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 Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra's music director and conductor, 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, taking over the chair of principal oboe in 1987. More than a mainstay, he was one of its most distinctive instrumental voices -- plangent, bubbling, lyric, on the money. He played an important role throughout the orchestra's Grammy-winning series of Mahler recordings, and just Saturday was performing as soloist for Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto.
When he collapsed during that performance, he was treated onstage by paramedics, and then taken to a hospital. The suddenness of his illness and death stunned the orchestra and its followers, as well as his colleagues and students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he was a longtime professor of oboe. He coached woodwind ensembles and maintained a studio of private students.
Born in New Haven, Conn., in 1956, Bennett was a graduate of Yale University and the Juilliard School of Music, studying oboe with Robert Bloom at both schools. He performed at major chamber music festivals -- Marlboro, Aspen, Music@Menlo -- and was a regular on the orchestra's world tours. In 1992, he gave the world premiere of composer John Harbison's Oboe Concerto with Herbert Blomstedt conducting -- music commissioned for him by the San Francisco Symphony and which Bennett went on to record with the orchestra for the Decca label.
In 2004, Bennett was stricken with tonsil cancer, took a leave of absence, and returned, playing as beautifully as he had earlier: "How fortunate we all were that Bill Bennett was our principal oboe," said Brent Assink, the orchestra's executive director. "His artistry transported us."
Bennett is survived by his wife Peggy and two sons. Messages of condolence can be posted at www.caringbridge.org/visit/williambennett1.