Monday, May 6, 2013

William Bennett memorial

Ten weeks ago, San Francisco Symphony principal oboeist Bill Bennett suddenly collapsed of a stroke - not only in mid-performance, but while playing the solo part of a concerto. I wasn't at that concert, but I mentioned it here at the time, as it was a major loss to the symphony - he was one of their best players.

Bennett died a week later without, I believe, regaining consciousness. The SFS community has been in mourning ever since, and one thing they did was schedule a free public memorial event at Davies this afternoon. I decided to go. I hadn't known him personally, but I wanted to honor his music-making.

Several friends, family members (both of his sisters, one of his sons), and symphony colleagues spoke. This is the first time I've ever heard MTT speak, either live or recorded, where he didn't seem to be on stage (although he literally was on stage, if you take my meaning). As usually happens at such events, the varied descriptions gave a lively sense of personality. The most amusing anecdote came from a friend. Bennett's wife is a doctor, and apparently Bennett got a little tired of meeting other doctors in his social life who, on learning that he was a musician, would introduce themselves by saying, "I'm a doctor, but my real passion is for music." Bennett took to pre-emptively introducing himself by saying, "I'm a musician, but my real passion is for neurosurgery."

There was one of those video programs made of home movies, which emphasized Bennett's goofy side - he was capable of playing the oboe in the water, while shaving, or even while brushing his teeth.

And some other colleagues played a little music between the spoken reminiscences. Nothing with oboe, of course, but we did have kindly renditions of the slow movements from Mendelssohn's D-minor piano trio and Mozart's clarinet quintet, and brass quintet arrangements of Praetorius's Es ist ein Ros entsprungen and the Brahms chorale prelude on the same theme.

As the audience left, we were all handed courtesy copies of a private CD, not for sale, collecting the stage tapes of three of Bennett's concerto performances with SFS: the Mozart concerto, with MTT, from 1995; an oboe-and-violin version of the Bach keyboard concerto, BWV 1060, from one of Barantschik's 18th-century concerts, from 2007; and the Richard Strauss concerto, the very one he was playing when he collapsed, from the previous night's performance of the same program. A bit of a chilling thought, but listen to the performance, which I've just done, and it's wonderfully fluent. You never would guess.

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