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The last concerts
Local students play for retiring UW Band director for the final time
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This years band includes Ryan Ingebritsen, a senior from Lancaster (left) and Anna Musarra, a junior from Platteville. - photo by Gary Smith

Every year since 1974, the UW Marching Band, and its winter version Varsity Band, has ended its season with a concert.

The 45th annual concerts in the UW–Madison Kohl Center Thursday through Saturday were the final three for band director Mike Leckrone, who is retiring after 50 years as the band’s director.

Because of Leckrone’s retirement, the theme of the concert was a phrase Leckrone started using in the second half of his 50-year career — “Moments of Happiness.”

“Marching for Mike has been an experience of a lifetime,” said Ryan Ingebritsen, a senior from Lancaster. “He has a passion, work ethic, sense of purpose, and intensity that no one else I have ever met possesses. He is such an interesting person to be around and learn from. He always demands the best and doesn’t settle for anything less than everything we can give. Marching for Mike has expanded what I thought was possible to achieve and has changed how I work to attain those goals. In short the experience has been truly amazing and one of a kind.”

“The band is a group of eccentric, hard working, fun-loving people. We can make anything fun, no matter where we are or what we’re doing, but we also know when it’s time to get to work,” said Anna Musarra, a junior from Platteville. “Marching for Mike has been a dream come true. It is something that I wanted to do since I was 13, and I’m so grateful to have been a part of his band for three years.”

Leckrone announced at the end of band tryouts in late August that his 50th season conducting the band would be his last.

“This year has been very special to all of us because of how much we respect Mike and how sad we are that he is leaving,” said Ingebritsen. “There seemed to be more focus throughout the year to be better than we have ever been before because we knew there wouldn’t be another year to get it right or have that elusive perfect show. Most of the time it didn’t feel that much different than other years because what we have been doing as a band didn’t change.

“The times that felt different were ‘the lasts’ — Mike’s last football game, or the last rehearsal, or the last Spring Concert, and all of the other last moments that we had with Mike. Those moments have been very special.”

“This year was hard, knowing his time was coming to an end,” said Musarra. “He wanted ‘business as usual,’ but his retirement was always on our minds. It didn’t really feel like it was really happening for most of the season, I’d say, but his last spring concert really made it sink in.”

The concerts were their usual mix — Leckrone once compared the concerts to the old CBS-TV Ed Sullivan Show, in which if viewers didn’t like something they’d see something different in a few minutes — of shows from the football season, traditional songs played at Camp Randall Stadium and the Kohl Center (some of which required audience participation), musical acts outside the band, and enough pyrotechnics to make the Kohl Center reverberate and fill with smoke and light.

Leckrone opened the concert by air on a replica of the Camp Randall Memorial Arch north of Camp Randall Stadium. He opened the second half on what appeared to be a jet pack, something that was proposed for an entrance to the band’s 100th-year concert at Camp Randall in 1986, emulating the opening of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

The concert included verbal jabs at Big Ten opponents (Iowa was said to have a new emphasis on academics with the slogan “Iowa Academics: Good and Getting Gooder”) and, as usual, the tubas (who Leckrone claimed had written a poem, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, we’re not as dumb as you think we is”), who nonetheless performed “The Muppet Show” theme.

Over the years the concert version of the football halftime shows evolved into full-fledged productions of their own. “Camp Randall Singalong” featured songs in which the band had been supplanted by recorded music, including the third-quarter-ending “Jump Around.” The final football-halftime piece was “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which included simulated lightning, sung versions of “Could We Start Again Please?” and “Everything’s All Right,” and dancing girls for “King Herod.”

The concert included one Leckrone-family piece, “Me and Bobby McGee,” sung by Leckrone’s granddaughter, Raychel Wilson, with Leckrone’s grandson, Michael Mitmoen, on tuba, and his son Erik on percussion. “The Music Man,” which included one of Leckrone’s several costume changes, featured a barbershop quartet, and ended with more pyrotechnics and a reprise of “76 Trombones,” accompanied by 50 band alumni, with two from Leckrone’s first band in 1969 through bands from earlier this decade.

Following “Dance Little Bird” — in which the crowd set speed records all three nights — and “You’ve Said It All,” Leckrone reminisced about his 50 years — from the 1969 football win over Iowa that ended UW’s 23-game losing streak, through six hockey national championships and two basketball Final Four appearances, to six Rose Bowls, the first of which, in 1994, he termed his favorite moment of happiness. He then sang Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” then slipped away, only to return flying through the Kohl Center air while the band played “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Following “Varsity,” Leckrone said goodbye to the band’s seniors, said, “As for me, you’ve made this an unbelievable …” then following applause after he trailed off, “multiply that by 10 times what this place is holding, and it’s not enough. Thank you so much for what you’ve meant to these kids and to me. I won’t say goodbye, but … we’ll see you real soon, and On Wisconsin.”

“Saturday night was incredibly emotional,” said Musarra. “We all just love Mike, and knowing that Saturday was his last concert was heart wrenching, at least for me. To see him flying, and know I would never get to see that again, was very hard.”

The band concluded the encore by singing “We Love You” to its seniors, drum major C.J. “Ottoh” Zabat, and finally Leckrone, who was not told the band would be serenading him after the final “You’ve Said It All.”

“We closed the show as we have many times before then with a collection of songs about our university, but there was a finality to that moment that gave those songs more meaning than they had in the past,” said Ingebritsen. “We also had a chance to sing ‘We Love You Seniors,’ which is a song we sing at the end of our time together during the fall and the spring. We usually don’t sing that at the Spring Concert, but it was really special that we could do that for Mike’s last concert as our goodbye to him. That was the best concert I have been a part of.”

Ingebritsen was one of those seniors.

“I will remember all of the moments of happiness I have had, the friends I have made, the places I have been, my time on the field in Camp Randall, and of course I’ll always remember Mike,” he said. “I have so many fond memories I’ve made during my time in band and I’ll always take them with me.”

“I will remember all of the moments of happiness that Mike always talks about,” said Musarra. “I experienced many this weekend, and one I will never forget is Mike shaking my hand, pulling me into a hug, and saying, ‘Thanks for everything, kid.’”

The Saturday concert was livestreamed on Wisconsin Public Television’s website. Highlights of the concerts can be seen on WPT stations, including WHA-TV (channel 21) in Madison, Saturday, May 4 at 7 p.m.