University of Wisconsin band director Michael Leckrone started flying through the Kohl Center arena about five or six years ago. This last weekend, the UW band legend soared over the crowd, flipping and bouncing as the 250-member Varsity Band played on.
Leckrone is continually evolving the annual UW Varsity Band Concert to fit audience expectations for outrageous and daring performances. Sparklers, fireworks and high flying acrobatics served to impress longtime patrons and new attendees, but the most significant difference this year is the band’s focus on performing better, Leckrone said.
The flying tradition really began when the band concert was held in the field house. Before the days of the jumbotrons’ aesthetic addition, before the intense pyrotechnics lit up the arena, Leckrone still sought that outrageous element to bolster what could be a very typical concert. During the concert’s early years, Leckrone was dropped from the ceiling of the field house on a single wire.
“It all started more or less when people started expecting the drama and we just try to provide it for them. And it’s a lot of fun,” Leckrone said.
When Leckrone introduced the band concert in ’74, just five years after becoming UW’s band director, he said it was much like what you would expect from a band concert. Aside from crowd participation, the concert lacked the signature “wow” factor that brings families and alumni back each year. Less concerned with safety and more about satisfying the crowd’s thirst for the outrageous, Leckrone dangled above the crowd.
Now Leckrone works on building other elements of the production in addition to theatrics. He said he wanted to create a sense of cohesion with this year’s Wizard of Oz theme. With local guest artists and arrangements from Wizard of Oz and its prequel Wicked, the show focused on the last line from the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.”
“We were looking for something to tie the whole concert together in a very loose form and that line sort of stuck out to me as something we could do with local talent,” Leckrone said. “Stressing the fact that this is the last time the whole group will be playing in the Kohl Center together.”
The Wizard of Oz theme has particular significance this year. Seventy-five years ago, the Wizard of Oz premiered in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Leckrone said he is always looking for anniversaries and events to celebrate, there was a lot of talk about its 75th anniversary and it was the natural choice for him.
Elements of the theme dotted the production. In addition to crowd favorites, like a medley of Camp Randall sing along songs, the band played medley arrangements from Wizard of Oz and Wicked while local singers Amanda Poulson and Jamie Pitt crooned on vocals.
UW trombone professor Mark Hetzler and local trumpeter John Schipper added passionate solo performances to break up the big band intensity. Their accompaniments also added texture and professional quality musicianship to the production. Hetzlers trombone rendition of Queen’s classic singles amplified the already exciting medley.
Leckrone said he appreciates the professionalism the guest artists bring to band practice, saying their work encourages students to follow their lead. Junior trumpet player Amanda Carrizales explained the nature of spring semester weekly practices.
“We cram 300 kids in one small room in Humanities once a week and for two hours with just him telling us what to do,” Carrizales said. “It’s a little overwhelming at first. It feels like, ‘How are we getting this done if we are only practicing once a week,’ but we always get it done.”
Carrizales knew she wanted to be a part of the band after seeing the concert for the first time in seventh grade. She said Leckrone continues to outdo himself with a show that grows bigger and bigger each year.
The end sequences of the performance culminated in loud blasts form the upper decks, fireworks, sparklers and costumed Wizard of Oz dancers who flailed and flipped about as the band played. It was the spectacular sensory overload the crowd has come to expect.
Long time patron and UW band alum Joe Muehlenkamp came to the performance with his wife and daughter, fellow Badger alums. They have been coming since 2000 and seeing the Varsity Band Concert has become a yearly family ritual. Muehlenkamp and his family are part of a large contingent of loyal band followers who come back year after year. Leckrone said these avid fans approach the performance like most families would celebrate a Super Bowl party.
With Leckrone at the helm, the annual performance will only grow in theatrical quirks that mirror his legendary personality.
“Its always exciting, we have to come every year,” Muehlencamp said. “We don’t know when Leckrone is going to retire, he has been here since 1969. But he is still the crazy old guy he always was.”