UW band directorÊreviews a dramatic year

UW band directorÊreviews a dramatic year

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The Capital Times

MADISON - Think of this story as a game with a halftime. Or better yet, as a concert with an intermission.

The person up on stage is UW Band Director Mike Leckrone, who led the Varsity Band in three recent sold-out shows at the Kohl Center.

The downbeat for this concert would be the first question of the interview — and, master musician that he is, Leckrone doesn't miss it.

What has it been like, this past year, playing at two Rose Bowls, the NCAA hockey tournament, the women's basketball National Invitation Tournament and the NCAA "Big Dance" that saw the UW men's basketball team advance to the Final Four?

"It's been a crazy time," says Leckrone, speaking in a small office, cluttered with red-and-white memorabilia, that must feel claustrophobic to someone used to performing on football fields and in athletic stadiums. "It's been nonstop for the past six weeks. You thought you'd get a rest after the Rose Bowl, but that's not the way it turned out."

"It's been very satisfying, but a little scary at times," he says, adding that the athletic department's successes have helped him to recruit new members. (Two players now audition for every one spot.) "I haven't felt tired because I haven't had the chance to think about it. We get a lot of our momentum from the fans. These spring concerts are the climax. After they're done, we can relax."

The spring band concerts are a big-time, roof-lifting tradition. But the two-hour-long, spectacular productions weren't always that popular.

Leckrone arrived at the UW in 1969 and gave the first spring band concert in 1975 in Mills Hall. The hall's capacity is 800, but only half a house showed up.

Later the concerts were moved to the Field House (capacity 8,700) and eventually they sold out.

Now the band plays three shows at the Kohl Center (capacity about 11,000) and they too sell out.

And that's not counting the number of viewers who will see the concert when it is televised at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 29 - the night of Butch's Bologna Bash and the Crazy Legs Run - on WHA-TV /Channel 21. (The concert will be rebroadcast throughout the state, reaching an estimated 1 million-plus viewers.)

Yet big as they get, the concerts have remained pretty much the same as far as format and philosophy go.

"We never feel we're playing at the audience," Leckrone says. "The audience feels as much a part of the show as the band. We plan it that way."

Leckrone estimates that about 40 percent of the pieces are "by demand" - standards the audience has come to expect, including "Varsity," "If You Want to Be a Badger," the "Bud Song" and the "Chicken Dance."

The rest of the show is new material - all of it specially arranged by Leckrone, who also happens to be a serious classical composer with 30 or so published works for band to his credit.

This year, as always, the formula has room for variety and novelty.

That means "some flying - with a few twists and new flight paths," deadpans Leckrone, who won't reveal details but who last year got harnessed up and entered a la Peter Pan.

It means dramatic lighting, precise staging and indoor fireworks.

It means a medley from the Broadway show "Miss Saigon" to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and a satiric live performance of the canned tunes that get played over Camp Randall Stadium's PA system.

It means celebrating the 90th anniversary of "On Wisconsin" with a medley called "On and On Wisconsin," which treats the tune as a Latin dance song, a German waltz, a Russian Cossack dance and so on.

It means bringing back Madison harmonica player Westside Andy Linderman, who brought down the house two years ago.

It means guest appearances by two UW alumni: blues singer Linda Franklin, who will perform in a Bessie Smith style; and trumpeter Jon Linker, who plays in the U.S. Air Force Band in Europe.

It also means having Madison's own Metropolitan Opera diva mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter Foss perform a song from "Carmen" and a Puccini aria ("O Mio Babino Caro") as well as "My Funny Valentine" and "The Alto's Lament."

Booking such artists is important to Leckrone, who also programmed violin virtuoso and fellow faculty member Vartan Manoogian a few years ago in the famous Mendelssohn concerto - with the brass standing in for strings.

(When Manoogian returned from a tour of Europe, during which he performed the same concerto with orchestra, Leckrone says he asked Manoogian how it went. "Just fine," Leckrone recalls him saying. "But you know, Mike, I missed the trombones.")

"Most of my audience are football, basketball and hockey fans," Leckrone says. "But they really love quality. So I try to introduce them to the local musical talent we have right here in Madison. They're always impressed by it."

Intermission facts: Here are simple facts that you might want to know about Mike Leckrone.

He pronounces his name LECK-rone, not Le-KRONE.

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What you see is what you get. He's a brassy kind of guy, an outspoken man who says he has no secrets to hide.

He was born and raised in North Manchester, Ind., where his dad directed the high school band. He played basketball in high school. ("Everyone in Indiana does," he says.) He even earned a college scholarship in the sport, but didn't use it.

He did his undergraduate work in music education at Butler University in Indiana, then stayed on to earn a master's degree in music history. He started, but never completed, a doctorate in music history at Indiana University.

His main instrument is the trumpet. For relaxation he loves to play the piano - as long as no one is listening. He plays Gershwin tunes and Scott Joplin rags and even some Mozart and Chopin.

He stays busy. Very, very busy.

He directs the UW bands and teaches classes. He also guest-conducts 20 to 25 bands a year. Lately he's been giving a lot of speeches, maybe 45 or 50 a year, to various groups ranging from band banquets to alumni meetings to motivational sessions for businesses.

Leckrone - who is universally described by students and colleagues as a "really nice guy" - overflows with energy.

He sleeps four to five hours a night, usually going to bed around 2 a.m. and getting up at 6:30 a.m. "I've never been a good sleeper or a good eater," he says, chiding himself for downing too much junk food. "I should be a physical wreck."

But he isn't.

He stays in shape - needed to perform his strenuous band duties - by doing aerobic workouts. He hates running. ("I don't like getting somewhere only to have to turn around and come back.") But he swims a lot. And he bikes.

Mostly he jumps rope.

"Nothing too fancy," he says, "but I can do it criss-cross and backwards." He takes his jump-rope on the road with him. When he's in peak shape, he says, he can jump rope up to 40 minutes straight. He has done close to 400 jumps without missing. He's proud of that.

Leckrone started performing music publicly when he was very young. So even though he thinks of himself as "basically a shy man," he says he never gets nervous enough to have it impair his performance. Just the usual butterflies of anticipation, he says. "I get more nervous for the teams than I do for the band. We've already done our work, so I know how it will turn out."

So what's it like to perform in front of, say, 10,000 or 100,000 people?

"It's great," he says, simply and with a most unsmirk-like smile of satisfaction.

Was it so great during the losing years?

"It was hard," he admits. "You'd work your tail off all week only to see less than 30,000 people at Camp Randall. If I ever thought about retiring, it was then. But the kids kept me going. They never faltered.

"I have a warm place in my heart for the kids of that era," he says. "They played their hearts out, but they weren't going to any Rose Bowl."

Second half: Now that the UW's sports teams are back on top, how does it feel when he raises his baton?

"You can't believe the sense of power," Leckrone says. "It's a great feeling. When you give the downbeat and get to see 'Varsity' from my perspective during the 'fifth quarter' - with all 200-plus band members in front of me and the fans in the stands behind them waving their arms - it's a natural high. It's a great ego trip."

Maybe that's why he calls it, matter-of-factly, "my band."

The hardest part of being in his band, he says, is not the rehearsing or the touring or even the funny walking. It's keeping up with the academic work, he says, noting that 40 percent of the band members are engineering students who are taking hard courses.

He says the key to the success of his band's playing - on the field or off - is a combination of musicianship and showmanship.

"I don't think there's any kind of music I don't like, from Bach to Metallica," Leckrone says. He especially loves opera. His idea of a great vacation is to go to New York City for a long weekend and see as many Broadway shows as possible.

"At heart," he says, "I'm a frustrated performer who just wasn't good enough to be the next Johnny Carson or David Letterman or Doc Severinsen or someone like that."

Finally, there is the question that seems to be on everyone's mind, but no one wants to come out and ask:

Will the 62-year-old Leckrone - now at the top of his form with a national reputation - retire any time soon?

"I honestly don't think about retiring," he says. "I don't know what else I'd do. This is all I can do."

Could he be lured away to another school?

"I'm too old for that now," he says, adding that it would take him - just like basketball coach Dick Bennett or football coach Barry Alvarez - at least five years to get another program to where he wants it.

The UW post is only the second job Leckrone has ever held (the first was at his alma mater Butler University), and after 31 years he says he still loves it. ("I've been through a lot of athletic directors and coaches," he jokes.) He was offered a couple of other jobs back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one in music publishing. But they just weren't right for him.

"It's like I tell the band: Music has to come first. You can't have fun if you don't play well," Leckrone says. "And I wouldn't have done this all these years if it wasn't fun."


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