Summer: 2 AM —2010

 “Summer: 2 AM,” was conceived as a companion piece to Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” and commissioned by James Freeman for soprano Laura Heimes and Orchestra 2001. These songs were premiered at the Kimmel Center Perelman Theater in Philadelphia. Soprano Amelia Watkins gave the premiere of the version for soprano and piano.

Program Notes

In 1982, I bought a recording of Eleanor Steber singing Barber’s “Knoxville” at the Yale Co-op on the recommendation of my first composition teacher, who sensed in my own “young” music a spirit kindred to Barber’s. Barber’s idyllic, moving and nostalgic picture of writer James Agee’s native Knoxville, Tennessee haunted me with its simple, dreamlike depiction of an evening in the American South, narrated by a child who seems, at times, to transform into an adult of profound wisdom.

Thus it was something of a dream come true to have been commissioned to create a companion piece to “Knoxville” to celebrate the Barber Centennial and yet, the anxious shadow cast by Barber’s music was something I was eager to step out of.  I immediately decided that my new piece could be nothing like Barber’s.

To this end, my very first call was to enlist singer-songwriter Mary Liz McNamara to write the words for this new “song cycle.” She’s both hilarious and soulful, and I knew that collaborating with her would lead me out of “Knoxville’s” shadow into funnier, less nostalgic musical and dramatic territory. In approaching the writing of the piece, Mary Liz and I discussed all sorts of ways to complement Barber’s “Knoxville,” and some musical and lyrical ideas kept surfacing, such as the image of a rocking chair on a summer night, and the inevitability of change coupled with a yearning for constancy.

“Our” soprano, the wonderful Laurie Heimes, is a new mother herself, and when we met her at her home to discuss ideas for the piece on a hot, summer day, she hurried in and out of the room, gracefully and with great humor juggling the demands of a newborn with our free-wheeling discussion, all on very little sleep. There was the hot summer day and the rocking chair of the Barber piece, but the point of view was not of a child, as it is in “Knoxville,” but of this very new parent.

It seemed a natural, logical pursuit for us: write about this very personal, idiosyncratic and yet almost universal experience. How does a person realize, not just with the mind, but with every part of their exhausted being, that everything, the whole world, has changed? And so, in a series of eight short songs, “Summer: 2 AM” charts the dizzying, stupefying, awful and wonderful transformation of a person into a parent.

When Barber was writing “Knoxville,” his father, Roy Barber, was losing his health and rapidly approaching death. Barber dedicated the work with the inscription “In memory of my Father,” suggesting that his father’s deteriorating health had something to do with his identification with the piece. I dedicate “Summer: 2 AM” to my mother, whose own memory has been fading far too quickly over the years, and to my daughter, now age 9, who is blossoming more and more each day, much to my amazement and delight. In trying not to think about “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” I found a way to remember my own summers, past and future.


  1. Lullaby
  2. To Baby
  3. What the Experts Say
  4. Bad Parent
  5. Dinner and a Movie
  6. Having a Baby Doesn’t Change Us
  7. When I Was Gilda
  8. Officer, I’m Sorry/Lullaby (reprise)


In contrast to the childlike view of home life in Barber’s Knoxville, Robert Maggio’s companion piece, Summer: 2 a.m. (another world premiere) showed mom on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Most song cycles set pre-existing poetry to music, but Maggio set new lyrics from Mary Liz McNamara that were partly inspired by soprano soloist Laura Heimes’ recent experiences with motherhood.

A series of inner monologues explores bafflement over her baby’s needs; too much information from self-help books; barely recognizing her own husband on a rare, exhausted night out; having dim memories of sex, and, as she ventures back into the world with a singing gig, negotiating with a police officer over her speedy tendencies and expired license.

Maggio matches the considerable wit of the words with music that often draws on recognizable forms – “Having a Baby Doesn’t Change Us” is a breezy jazz waltz, for example – with masterfully integrated references to Barber’s Knoxville. Heimes’ obvious ownership of the piece, unfortunately, translated into a heavy-handed performance. No doubt the piece will thrive on subtle comic surprise as it enters the repertoire (which it will). But wouldn’t it be great to hear a major Maggio work that’s not a companion piece?

David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 25, 2010