Campus shocked by early passing of Steven Bodner

Beloved teacher, musician, conductor and friend, visiting artist-in-residence Steven Dennis Bodner of the music department passed away from complications due to pneumonia early in the morning on Jan. 11. He was 35 years old.

Bodner arrived at the College in September 2000 as the new music director of the Symphonic Winds ensemble. Since then, he had taken on a wide variety of roles in the music department: In addition to directing Symph Winds, Bodner simultaneously served as director of the Opus Zero Band and co-director of I/O New Music, taught courses in aural skills acquisition and music fundamentals, led classical saxophone lessons and performed with the Williams Chamber Players and the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra. Bodner was also a founding board member of Roomful of Teeth, a vocal ensemble started by Brad Wells, artist-in-residence and director of choral and vocal activities, and he regularly conducted productions of The New Opera in Williamstown.

Since his sudden passing, the outpouring of emotion from those who knew Bodner has swept the campus and beyond. On Jan. 11, a two-hour gathering on Chapin Hall Stage to remember and honor him brought friends, colleagues and students together to recall Bodner’s powerful impact on them. They talked about his prowess as a conductor, how he constantly pushed the boundaries of others’ expectations and his fearlessness in challenging both his players and his audience. They talked about his passion as a teacher, how he was intensely involved in the lives and educational well-being of his students. Mostly, however, they talked about his caring as a friend, how his kindness and enthusiasm radiated to every person he met.
“Steve Bodner was a magnificent gift and a light to so many in the Williams community,” Dean Sarah Bolton said. “At the gathering on [Jan. 11], dozens spoke about how Steve moved them to do things they didn’t believe they could do – to love new music, play instruments they’d never played or get up on stage for the first time. He recognized something within us and persistently tugged it to the surface, and so allowed us to find new joy. He is greatly missed.”

Personal stories about Bodner illuminate the ways in which he was such an important presence here at the College. Joana Genova, artist associate in violin, recalls small moments of interaction with Bodner in Bernhard Music Center. “Steven was one of the colleagues I always liked to see in the hallway of the music building,” she said. “We would give each other a hug, and he would ask me how I was doing in his warm, somewhat booming voice. We never really had time for coffee, but we would stand there for a while talking about his projects and the students involved.” Olivia Uhlman ’13, one of Bodner’s music theory students, also remembers the small moments: “I will miss watching him conduct music that confused me, joking with him in class and, needless to say, seeing his smile on campus.”

Friends also remember Bodner as a staple in Bernhard Music Center. “[Steve] always seemed to be in the music building, whether teaching or listening to other rehearsals, and he did not seem to miss any concerts,” Genova said. Jenny Dewar, concert and event manager, added that, “he was the only one who was in that building more than I was … I just can’t imagine him not being around.”

Many students remarked that Bodner played a large role in their developing love of music. “Musically, Steve has had a huge impact on me,” Zina Ward ’12 said, “since I came to Williams skeptical about new music and will leave it a willing – if selective – listener.” Similarly, after taking an aural lab class with him, Uhlman recalls, “I was hesitant about continuing music theory, but after finding out he was one of the lab professors for ‘Music Theory 104’ I was convinced I had to take it. I needed to have him as a professor.” Perhaps Brian Simalchik ’10 put it most succinctly: “Steve introduced me to the music that changed my life.”

Bodner’s dedication to his students can be summed up by Elizabeth Irvin ’10: “It was the night before my thesis was due, and Steve was my advisor. After reading my latest draft (all 60 pages of it) while simultaneously taking notes for Brad Wells on the choir’s dress rehearsal of the Brahms Requiem, we sat down in Thompson Chapel to have one last thesis meeting. His comments, as usual, were thorough and thoughtful. As we were leaving the empty, darkened chapel at close to 10 p.m., Steve told me he’d be up doing his taxes until 3ish [a.m.] and that he would love to look over any revisions I had before then. Between 10:30 p.m. and 10:30 a.m., we exchanged 23 e-mails, which included not only invaluable advice about my conclusion but also jokes about a cartoon I had posted to Facebook earlier that day.”

Several other students confirmed Irvin’s sentiments, adding the fact that the normal student-faculty relationship does not quite describe what they had with Bodner. “Steve was more than a conductor for me – he was a really great friend,” Peter Gottlieb ’11 said. “I like to think that we moved from a traditional student-teacher relationship to a truly equal artistic partnership and a close and special friendship,” Simalchik said.

One of Bodner’s most important contributions to the College was his transformation of Symph Winds into the 60-member powerhouse ensemble and promoter of new music we know it as today. “Steve began at Williams 10 years ago with a Symphonic Winds consisting of half a dozen of the hard-core contingent that decided to stick it out after the previous director, Carl Jenkins, retired,” said David Kechley, professor of music. “Ten years later he had students playing some of the most cutting-edge and challenging 20th century music there is and playing it well. There is no other liberal arts college in the country with a wind ensemble or any group playing the kind of repertoire Steve chose. His enthusiasm for the music he loved and his pursuit of its performance seemed limitless.”

Matthew Gold, director of the percussion ensemble, also commended his friend Bodner’s transformation of Symph Winds. “It seems that every semester we would talk about his upcoming programs, and I would think that surely this time he has gone too far and that it would never be possible,” he said. “But the students would always rise to the challenge, and as the music got more difficult the performances got better and better. He created something here that simply did not exist before and does not exist at other liberal arts institutions of this size, and the students over time became invested in it and believed in it.”

Students agree that Bodner’s bold choices as a conductor set him apart. Ward remembers taking a Symph Winds trip to Philadelphia for the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) conference last spring: “Steve’s approach to college wind ensembles was dramatically different than 95 percent of his peers, and our trip to CBDNA was his way of showing other band directors his vision of what their job should be in terms of programming, experimentation and challenge,” she said. “His program notes were polite and (as always) perfectly proofread, but they were extremely pointed in their criticism of the stagnant band world. The gesture – going to a college band conference to reveal what is wrong with college bands – was pure Steve in its boldness and provocativeness.”

From teaching classes, conducting several ensembles and merely being always present in the music department, many have been unable to believe that Bodner kept it all on his plate. Just a few days before his passing, Bodner was diligently coordinating the second annual I/O Fest, a weekend-long celebration of new music. “I was looking at his rehearsal schedule for the I/O fest and there were literally no breaks all day long,” Genova said. “He worked nonstop and never complained. He always managed to stay calm, smiling and encouraging.”

“His enthusiasm for music and events on campus was incomparable; I think he may have had to be in two places at once to attend as many as he did,” Uhlman said. “Music was his life,” Simalchik said, “but he had so many other passions and interests that I wonder how he had the time to do everything he did.”

Above all, however, Bodner will be remembered for his giving personality and the deeply meaningful relationships he created with those around him. “I think the most important thing to understand about Steven is how much he cared for the people in his life and how much of himself he gave,” Gold said. “He and I were good friends and close collaborators, and I always knew that I could count on him … His generosity was such that often I didn’t even need to ask. He would anticipate things and just be there when you needed him … He went out of his way to be there for a greater number of people than seems possible.”

“Steven epitomized the ideal of the dedicated teacher, mentor, friend and artist,” said Erik Lawrence, studio instructor in saxophone and jazz saxophone. “He had unbounded energy and generosity … A great place of learning is made special by people like Steven Bodner.”

“[Steve] would happily sacrifice sleep, hot meals and any free time to sit in on a rehearsal or practice session, read a paper, write a last-minute recommendation letter, respond to a panicked e-mail, drive to New York City and back in an afternoon, teach an unofficial independent study or just about anything else anyone asked him to do,” Irvin said. “All he asked in return was that we approach all music with an open mind and an adventurous heart.”

Soon after his passing, Dewar created a Facebook page for those who knew Bodner at any point of his life. At the time of publication, over 120 different people have posted a memory or kind word about Bodner, and over 650 have become fans of the page.

Bodner leaves the College a legacy of passion for new music and unwillingness to give in to conventional boundaries. Many people have expressed how long he will be remembered here and how greatly the music department will feel his absence. “Steve always pushed the envelope and challenged all of us to achieve more than we thought was possible,” Kechley said. “His contribution to the energy and dynamic of the music program is hard to measure and will be remembered for years to come.”

“Working with Steve has been one of the defining experiences for me at Williams,” Gottlieb said, “and as much as I am sad that I won’t get to work with him again in the future, I am equally sad that future Williams musicians will be deprived of the change to have their personal philosophies completely rewritten by Steve.”

“It would be hard to name a more pervasive influence on the soul of the Williams community than Steve Bodner,” College Chaplain Rick Spalding said. “With that slightly amused, leaning-forward look that was so much at home on his face, it was as though he knew that some wonder was always about to break forth that would knock our socks off. And now, of course, we recognize that: He himself was the wonder all along. It will take years to take stock of all that we’ve lost in his passing – and all that he left behind among and within us.”

Bodner’s funeral took place on Monday in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, near his hometown of Parma Heights, Ohio. A memorial service will be held in Thompson Chapel at 3 p.m. on Feb. 12. To honor his memory, the music department will also that day be presenting Puente Sonoro: A Festival of Latin American Musics, an event Bodner had helped plan.

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