I first met Steven Dennis Bodner in 1998. He was a graduate student at New England Conservatory in Boston and I was a 12-year-old in a youth orchestra at NEC Preparatory School. Steve conducted rehearsals and managed the circus of excitable parents, goofy kids and wild personalities. On tour, Steve’s unshakable bonhomie supported his ensembles through setbacks and emergencies, including an 8.1-magnitude earthquake in Mexico City. To those at NEC, he’s still affectionately known as “Ponytail Steve,” despite the blessed trimming of his signature long hair.
In 2000, Steve assumed leadership of Symphonic Winds, a small wind ensemble comprising a few music majors struggling with their identity. Over the next decade, Steve transformed the group into a preeminent collegiate ensemble with a reputation for pursuing new and ambitious music. Speaking of Symph Winds in a 2007 interview, Steve said: “When I started in 2000, there were a grand total of 11 Williams students in the ensemble … Now, though, we [have] around 60 student musicians … I realized early on that if Symph Winds was going to survive, I had to attract the best student musicians. But many of those students … wanted no part of it.”
Steve received the first e-mail I ever wrote as a Williams student; I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t possibly commit to his struggling wind ensemble. As a kindness, he ignored the e-mail completely, added my name to the roster and handed me music to learn. This experience was shared by nearly every musician on campus. No matter how fervent our refusals, the webbing of Steve’s net let no one escape: Hence the Facebook group “I can’t say no to Steve Bodner.” But once ensnared, “I can’t say no” took on an entirely new meaning.
Steve had an infectious disregard for limits, whether physical, musical or practical, and his passion for new music could not be stifled. Even facing an ensemble with little experience or interest in new music, Steve shunned the traditional band repertoire and conceived programs featuring new music icons like Louis Andriessen and premiers including Williams faculty, alumni and students.
In Fall 2006, Steve programmed John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music, a challenge that pushes even professional ensembles to their limits. During rehearsals, one-on-one instruction, chats in the Bernhard hallways and missives emailed at 3 a.m., Steve compelled us to exceed our potential: “I have too much respect for all of you as musicians and as people to let you simply settle for what you ‘can do.’ To be honest, I have little pedagogic interest in what you ‘can do’ already – I am interested in what you are capable of – and even more, I am interested in what you do not even know you are capable of yet!”
This exemplifies the experience of learning new music with Steve. What would begin as inconceivable, Steve helped us transform into merely impossible.
Steve was a constant support in the lives of his students, whether attending a recital or play, debating philosophy or advising for a colloquium. He was always eager to share his favorite music during late nights in front of his stereo or on breakneck trips to concerts in Boston.
Outside the concert hall, Steve’s irreverent wit spread his huge smile to all the faces around him. His biting sarcasm was never far away. With a deftly deployed “Aww, muffin,” Steve would mock any whining or complaining, all while boosting spirits enough to overcome any obstacle.
Speaking of the Grand Pianola Music performance, Steve said: “You will look back on this as one of the most rewarding musical experiences in your lives … I feel privileged to be able to share this opportunity with each of you!”
True to Steve’s prediction, the wave of satisfaction and accomplishment that overwhelmed us as the audience rose to their feet remains one of my most rewarding musical experiences. The thousands of hours spent under Steve’s direction and our time as his protégés and friends were a privilege that cannot be overstated.
Our community has lost a musical titan, an exemplary educator and a beloved friend. It’s staggering to think of his impact on the music department, the College, the world of music and the hundreds of lives he shaped. In this week of shock and extreme sadness the support of our community on campus and around the world has been remarkable. Returning to the music he shared with us is immensely daunting, but I think of the lesson he taught us as we struggled to prepare for each concert: Why ever aim for what you know you can reach, for what’s acceptable and appropriate? Thank you, Steve, for teaching us how to reach beyond ourselves.
Ian Jessen ’07 currently lives in Boston, Mass.