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Spokane Symphony remembers two instrumental leaders – flutists Gale Coffee, 83, and Bruce Bodden, 57

UPDATED: Sun., April 24, 2022

Over the past few months, Spokane has lost two leaders in the flute-playing community: Gale Coffee, 83, and Bruce Bodden, 57.

Bodden won the role of principal flute with the Spokane Symphony in 1990 and held the role until January, when symptoms related to his 2018 cancer diagnosis prompted him to step back.

His last concert was the symphony’s New Year’s Eve performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Following his death on March 24, the symphony dedicated its performances of “Masterworks 7: 1001 Nights” to Bodden’s memory.

Bodden’s husband, Steven Radcliffe, said it was difficult to pick out the “peaks” in his career because he simply loved his work too much.

“He didn’t have to be out in front playing a full concerto … every time he had a great solo to play, even as a member of the orchestra, was a high point,” Radcliffe said.

Coffee held the role of second chair flute and principal piccolo with the symphony from 1970 until she retired in 2008. Alaina Bercilla, who auditioned for and won the position after her, remembers meeting Coffee and Bodden the year before.

“When I joined the symphony in 2007, I was sandwiched between Bruce and Gale,” Bercilla said. That first year, she sat next to Coffee on one side and shared a music stand with Bodden on the other.

“(Gale) was generous and made efforts to let me know I was included in the musical community here – even as a newbie – and treated me as a friend,” she said.

Years back, Coffee offered to fill in for Bercilla during a concert with the Northwest BachFest.

“I had a sudden emergency in my family (and) needed to go back to California with very little notice,” she said. Coffee had been retired for a few years at this point, but she offered to help nonetheless.

“A few weeks after the gig, I received her paycheck for the services in my mailbox sent by Gale herself.”

On March 8, Coffee died from complications due to a recent cancer diagnosis. Friends and family will hold a memorial service for Coffee at Chateau Rive in the Flour Mill on May 6 at 5 p.m. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be given to the Spokane Symphony.

Bercilla shared a music stand with Bodden for the entirety of her 10 years with the symphony.

“(He) was a presence in the orchestra … I had a front-row seat to this experience and was a willing participant at times,” she said, remembering some particularly talkative rehearsals.

Bodden was “goofy, often over-the-top,” outspoken, “incredibly thoughtful and kind.”

“Being a musician can be a very tough life,” she said. “And through ups and down, I think he continued to come back to his flute playing and musicianship with such seriousness and intention. … I am very grateful that I landed in the chair next to him.”

Another fellow symphony musician, Colleen McElroy, remembered Bodden’s sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of orchestral repertoire and recordings.

“A few summers ago, I went to Bruce’s house to play for him and get feedback on some music I was preparing,” she said. “After I played one selection, he started talking about a favorite recording, found the CD and cued it up within a second of the part of the piece he was referencing.”

This was a 1- to 2-minute section about two-thirds of the way through a 40-minute symphony.

“Bruce took his work very seriously but brought a huge dose of humor to go along with it,” she said. “He had an extremely quick mind, and conductors would often look up to see the wind section cackling at some wisecrack he had made, or at one of his trademark ‘hair flips.’ ”

Bodden’s loss is certainly felt by his own section, but just as much by the rest of the orchestra.

“Bruce was very good at being a leader for the woodwinds but also for the entire orchestra,” second violin and orchestral librarian Catherine Shipley said. “His sound was so big and beautiful that it was easy for all of us to (follow).”

McElroy agreed. “He set the bar high and made it easy for the rest of the section to go with him,” she said.

Pat McNally, the symphony’s principal bass, remembered hearing Bodden play for the first time. The orchestra was performing a piece by Maurice Ravel that asks a lot from the wind section.

“They played beautifully, but the principal flute player, Bruce Bodden, stood out from the others,” McNally said. Over the years, he remembered, Bodden’s playing was consistently impressive.

“I always looked forward to hearing the flute solo and Bruce’s interpretation of whatever music we were playing.”

In addition to his musical and teaching career, Bodden worked as a physical therapy assistant.

While recovering from a stroke, McNally particularly remembered Bodden’s support.

“He gave me extra help … spending many hours of his own time with me,” he said. “I will miss him as a musician and a friend but consider myself very lucky to have known him.”

Alicia Zeiler, a student of Bodden’s, remembered his rigorous approach, but also the efforts he made to keep music fun.

“In music school, you’re taught that certain composers are the ‘greats,’ very serious, shown respect, etc.,” she said, remembering how, on the other hand, Bodden included films like “The Princess Bride” and jazz favorites by Ella Fitzgerald in his curriculum.

“He taught others to see the fun in music, to make it humorous, silly, dramatic, crazy – nothing was ever very ‘serious’ to him,” she said. “The largest takeaway from this style of teaching for me was that music shows life.”

Zeiler remembered sitting next to Bodden onstage during a symphony concert.

“He was whispering and pointing out something funny, and I was trying my best to be the polite, studious, quiet symphony member,” she said. “I realized that this was music-making for him.

“It wasn’t always about being the perfect symphony musician … don’t get me wrong, he was a great member of the symphony. But I think what made him stand out as a human, and musician, was his ability to bring joy to those around him, and have that joy himself in his own life.”

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