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UW Varsity Band’s spring concert is director Mike Leckrone’s final curtain

April 9, 2019

He has thought long and hard about what to say to the thousands attending the UW Varsity Band spring concerts this week at the Kohl Center.

Spectators want more than a show. They want to witness UW Bands director Mike Leckrone’s last “last”: the sold-out concert series — slated for Thursday, Friday and Saturday — that will cap an end to a storied 50-year career before he retires this academic year.

“This is the moment everybody is sort of looking for to represent the curtain coming down in a lot of ways,” Leckrone said. “Is that too dramatic?”

Leckrone’s speech at the end of the show, he’s decided, will be one of reassurance.

“This is the thought that everyone seems to be bringing to me now is, what’s going to happen next?” he said. “Where is the band going to go? What I want to do is assure people that there is a tradition. There are certain things the band has done over the years that I don’t see evaporating. There will be changes, yes, but there’s not going to be a complete change in the traditions.”

He paused, as if editing the speech inside his head.

“That’s kind of the gist of it,” he said. “I will hopefully say it much better than that.”

In March 1975, just five years into his career, Leckrone, then 37, decided an end-of-the-year gathering for his Marching and Varsity bands would be nice.

“Let’s have a party,” the kids said.

“Let’s have one last performance,” Leckrone replied.

Leckrone met the students half an hour before the concert began in Room 1341 of the Humanities building. On the blackboard, he scribbled down the songs students would play later that night in Mills Hall.

They had debated earlier whether to charge a dollar to attend.

“Nobody will pay a buck,” someone said.

About 450 people did.

He sweated through his red blazer by intermission. On went a gaudy blue and red splotched shirt he had brought to wear to the after-party as a joke.

The next year, he wore a red sequined vest, and his attire kept escalating in ostentatiousness from there.

The single-day show has morphed into massive, multi-day blowouts led by ringmaster Leckrone.

Saturday’s show sold out Jan. 14, the first day tickets became available. Friday’s show sold out the next day. Thursday’s show sold out three weeks later.

Those who can’t get tickets can still see the show when it airs at 7 p.m. Saturday on Wisconsin Public Television at go.madison.com/leckrone-concert.

What’s next?

Leckrone has few concrete plans to share when people ask him about his retirement plans.

“I haven’t had time to think about it,” he said. “It’s been a nonstop pace practically since I announced (my retirement).”

He gave up golf long ago. He doesn’t like to fish or hunt. He even considers eating a waste of time.

“I can absolutely guarantee I’m not going to pack up, sell my house and move to Florida or Arizona,” he said.

UW-Madison granted Leckrone, who never took a sabbatical in his 50 years working for the university, a paid leave next academic year.

He plans to spend part of it archiving some of his work with Mills Music Library. He looks forward to composing and arranging more music. He will also host a Wisconsin Alumni Association tour traveling through Europe next fall.

While Leckrone may be on campus from time to time, the sabbatical doesn’t change the sentimentality of his last year.

“I’m not going to have that day-to-day contact with the students,” he said. “That’s the finality of it.”

Leckrone has received between 400 and 500 letters from students and former students this year thanking him for the influence he had on their lives. Over his 50-year career, he’s accumulated file drawers’ worth of notes.

The grand finale

For a man who says he has never seen a perfect performance — the tubas came in too early in one song, or students sprung from their seats too quickly or the flugelhorns lacked fervor — these concerts are Leckrone’s grand finale.

The first meeting for this week’s shows took place in July.

His concerts have featured fireworks, blimps, confetti, strobe lights and a Fifth Quarter chicken dance, among other special effects. One year, sparklers attached to his hands accidentally misfired, burning a few strands of his hair. Another time a boxing championship banner caught fire.

Leckrone directs 280 students, electricians, sound technicians, pyrotechnicians and others. He says everyone knows what his or her job is but jokes that the only person who knows everyone else’s job is himself.

Leckrone’s entrances have become legendary. He has swung from a trapeze, soared over the stage on a motorcycle and ridden a bicycle across the Fieldhouse on a wire.

In 2017, he took it easy following double-bypass heart surgery. He characterized his 2018 entrances as “modest.”

His grand entrance this year?

“Oh that, I’m not telling!” he said. “But we’re going to blow the whole thing here.”

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