My Friend Bill

William Bennett, 1956-2013

William Bennett, 1956-2013

I lost one of my oldest and dearest friends yesterday — and one of the deepest musicians I’ve ever known.

Bill Bennett, longtime oboist with the San Francisco Symphony, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage onstage last weekend while performing Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto at Davies Symphony Hall here in San Francisco. He passed away yesterday, surrounded by his family.

Here’s a fine obituary written by our local classical music critic, a cool guy who also knew Bill well.

I met Bill 30 years ago. I was a classical musician recently turned rocker, teaching guitar in San Francisco and hoping for a break. I received a call one day from a young-sounding dude who’d seen one of my ads.

“Do you teach rock guitar?” he asked with a slight air of suspicion.

“Of course I teach rock,” I sniffed.

“I only want to study rock,” he said. “Not classical.” I assumed I was talking to some close-minded metal kid, and reassured him that I wouldn’t try to foist any classical stuff on him.

You know the punchline: My “close-minded” student turned out to be one of the most celebrated classical musicians of his generation.

Bill only wound up studying guitar for a year or two, but we remained pals and often attended each others’ gigs. In fact, the last two times we got to hang out were after an S.F. Symphony performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, and when my band Mental 99 played at one of our local clubs.

I could go on at great length about how talented, funny, and sweet-natured Bill was, and you’d just have to take my word for it. But my mind keeps returning to the way we met, and what that said about Bill as an open-minded musician and lifelong seeker of knowledge. Here was this genius musician, already recognized as one of the world’s finest woodwind players, eager to tackle a new instrument in a new style. Talk about stepping outside your comfort zone!

And it was uncomfortable for him. He had to endure all the stuff we suffered when we started playing: the fingertip calluses, the excruciating barre chords, getting treated like crap at Guitar Center while shopping for a Strat. (Bill loved Hendrix — a lot!) I’ve certainly never done anything as musically brave.

And speaking of brave: Bill was diagnosed with tonsil cancer nearly a decade ago. A woodwind player with a throat cancer — how horrifying is that?! Yet I witnessed Bill undergo the agony of chemo and radiation treatments with his characteristic humor and optimism. It was yet another example of Bill’s profound bravery and indefatigable spirit. Bill kicked the cancer and returned to the Symphony within the year.

Bill leaves behind many great recordings, especially the ones made in recent years under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. The S.F. Symphony’s recordings of the Mahler symphonies are particularly glorious. Another important disc is Bill’s performance of John Harbison’s Oboe Concerto, a piece commissioned by the S.F. Symphony and premiered by Bill.

I’m going to miss Bill more than I can say. My heart goes out to his lovely family.

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