Some knew him as that British-born composer of classical music who'd studied with Pierre Boulez and created concerti, an opera, string quartets, beginning in his teens. Movie-goers had their experiences enhanced by the power and charm of his scores for such films as Equus, Far From the Madding Crowd, Nicholas and Alexandra, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Yanks and Murder on the Orient Express. His name appearing on the cover of a soundtrack album after "Music by" has always been reason enough for me to make the purchase, whether I'd ever see the actual motion picture or not.
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett's talents also led me to his albums as a tasteful, adventurous pianist and elegant, understated singer of classy material with thoughtful jazz touches. One early favorite features the work of Stephen Sondheim who went "on the record" himself to champion the man when he was after a green card to live and work in the United States, making his home in New York City from 1979 on. And, as a cabaret fan and reviewer, I was pleased to see him perform in person, sharing the stage—in separate engagements-- with singers Mary Cleere Haran and Pinky Winters. (He and the latter won a Bistro Award in 2008, the year before I was invited to join the committee.) He recorded not only with them, but with Marion Montgomery and engagements and CDs in more recent times found him paired with British jazz singer Claire Martin. And his work with Joyce Breach is gem-like. A respected songwriter who respected other songwriters, his recordings include album-long surveys of many of the greats from the golden age of musical theater.
The impression one got was not only focused on his prodigious musical gifts and ability to entertain and transport. The sense was, too, that here was a true gentlemen to his fingertips—or should I say, certainly to his fingertips, as his touch on the keyboard was memorable. My admiration put me in good company, of course. Richard Rodney Bennett was nominated for Emmy and Academy Awards. Obviously, singers sought him out, as did songwriters looking for collaborators. Prince Charles commissioned him to write a piece to honor the Queen Mother. When Paul McCartney wanted advice when he decided to try his hand at serious composition, whom do you think he called? And, like McCartney, he was knighted.
The eclectic man of many musical hats was once asked why he chose to be in music and when and how he started. He'd replied simply that it was like being tall --- it wasn't a choice at all. He certainly stands tall among fellow artistic giants.
We lucky New Yorkers got to be in his chosen adopted city and to see and hear him - and applaud him with much due respect - in our clubs and at the Cabaret Convention concerts. Passing away on Christmas Eve seems doubly unfair. He leaves behind quite a legacy of recordings and memories and movies, so we can take comfort in future years with that, recalling the now-appropriate name of one of my favorite albums of his - named for its title song so wistfully sung and played: "I Never Went Away."