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Programme Notes

One of my favorite road trips in Iowa is a drive to the majestic Surf Ballroom, located in the small resort town of Clear Lake, around 140 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids, my boyhood hometown. Opening in 1934, many of America’s most famous swing, jazz and rock 'n' roll bands have performed at ‘The Surf’ for generations of music lovers, dancing the night away on the immense hardwood floor. 
The Surf is also remembered as the place where young rock 'n' roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper gave their last performances of the Winter Dance Party tour on the evening of February 2, 1959. They died hours later in a charter plane crash caused by severe winter weather. This tragedy is often referred to as ‘the day the music died.’ But did it really?
In memory of the three rock 'n' roll legends who perished in February 1959, and in celebration of the Surf Ballroom being declared a National Historic Landmark in January 2021, I have composed a one-movement dance symphony entitled Last Dance at the Surf
My dance symphony starts with woodblocks and pizzicato strings, playing a five-note rhythmic groove reminiscent of a Buddy Holly guitar riff. This groove is repeated in various transformations throughout the composition and provides counterpoint to the main theme, a syncopated ascending melody played in unison by the woodwinds. The main theme goes through elaborate rhythmic and timbral developments, followed by a rousing ‘rockabilly’ section. 
A second lyrical theme is introduced as a slow dance, with cantabile muted trumpets, woodwinds and violins swooning over hushed lower strings and trombones. The opening theme abruptly returns in a high-energy fugue ‘goin’ faster than a roller coaster’ and then dramatically transforms into a majestic chorale in slow motion. A solo horn cadenza transitions into a final slow dance, kaleidoscopically unraveling the main theme through elaborate counterpoint, punctuated by the sound of sleigh bells.
The first coda is a recapitulation of all the previous themes, unfolding with great fanfare but interrupted by foreboding minor chords, a premonition that destiny is just around the corner. A slow, wistful second coda announces that the last dance has begun. Three final chords resonate: although the dance is over, the music and memories of the Surf Ballroom live on.
© Michael Daugherty

Last Dance at the Surf

Iowa State Center (Ames, IA, USA)

Iowa High School Music Association, Rebecca Burkhardt

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