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Maud Hixson: Permanent Moonlight—Songs of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett

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Maud Hixson: Permanent Moonlight—Songs of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett
Still famed for her "silents" and early retirement from sound movies, lonely star Greta Garbo once conjured a dreamy fantasy of "permanent moonlight" in a letter to someone who was about as enigmatic a creative icon as she was, Noël Coward.

In 2012 singer Maud Hixson came across that Garbo letter while reviewing personal effects of Coward's at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts. She attended that exhibit with Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, a legendary composer and songwriter in his native Great Britain, also in New York where he usually lived over his last few decades.

The songwriter then living in New York and the Minnesota-based singer had connected after Hixson recorded an obscure song that Bennett loved, "I'm Way Ahead Of The Game," written by Robert Emmet Dolan and Johnny Mercer. Long-distance, the two soon discovered a mutual love of the songs of Noël Coward, and Bennett invited Hixson to visit him in New York, a visit whose highlight would be the Coward exhibit. A quick series of visits produced a close friendship Hixson specially valued for absorbing Bennett's principle of "going through life with your ears leading the way."

On Hixson's last visit, she and Bennett staged a "Midtown Jazz at Midday" concert in Manhattan. Hixson recalls, "We played our favorite songs and too soon I was leaving to return to Minnesota. He said he would see me in London. He died two months later."

Coward and Bennett were mutual admirers whose creative gifts included insightful songwriting. At Coward's 70th birthday party in 1969, 33-year-old Bennett played piano in tribute. Though both men created remarkable works across many genres, each was well-known mostly to a select audience.

That select audience reflected the era, with a shadow of social disapproval still being cast by the UK's legal restrictions on people of Coward's (and Bennett's) sexual identity. Even private homosexual activity was not decriminalized in the UK until 1967, in Scotland until 1980, and in Northern Ireland until 1982.

Carefully choosing ten of Bennett's hundreds of remarkable songs, Hixson recorded them from 2021 to 2023, titling her definitive CD Permanent Moonlight / Songs of Richard Rodney Bennett.

Also a diligent musicologist, Hixson has long studied 20th century composers she regards as deeply talented though not broadly recognized. In 2013 she recorded a definitive collection of songs by accomplished American composer Michael Leonard, best known in New York music circles. Underwritten by a Minnesota State Arts Board grant promoting study of the entire output of a living composer, Hixson's CD of Leonard's songs was reviewed by Rob Lester in Talkin' Broadway as "smooth as silk and just as classy."

Hixson is the ideal instrument for Bennett's rare songwriting, presenting soft-spoken storylines whose literate lyrics and emotional insight manage to hit hard. Her style could be described as that of a pure-hearted, youthful-sounding storyteller backed by adult attitude.

The Bistro Award for outstanding achievement in a 2023 recording went to Hixson's Permanent Moonlight.

Bennett (1936-2012) was a remarkably diverse composer, in the vicinity of the Gershwin accomplishment ranging over many genres. In addition to artful popular song, Bennett's compositions included jazz; scores for film and television; classical compositions of symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and fanfares; and more.

The first track of Permanent Moonlight is "Early To Bed," a song Bennett wrote for Blossom Dearie. It's slim and breezy as you'd expect of a song about good rising and sleeping habits, yet Hixson gives it a sweet depth, as Dearie did in her repertoire (though she turned down "Early To Bed" out of objection to one line).

Asked about a singer who's long been an inspiration for her own song selection and performance, Hixson says, "Blossom gravitated toward the quirky and overlooked song—or wrote them herself—and in performance was insistently conversational, never selling out the story by showboating."

Here's the middle verse of Bennett's "I Never Went Away."

Whenever I would lose my way
without a star to guide me,
I always found I'd turn around
and you'd be there beside me.
And so, my dear, however far away I flew,
no matter where I travelled to
I never went away from you
I never went away.


The common song subject of lost love sometimes comes off maudlin or melodramatic, but expertly composed and performed, it can be a stirring little three-minute tragedy. Listen to Sinatra's shattering one-take masterpiece of "I'm a Fool To Want You" and you feel his torment, caught between love for his first wife and his next.

Listening to Hixson's wistful read on the bittersweet lyrics of "I'll Always Leave The Door a Little Open"—lyrics by Bennett and Franklin Underwood, music by Johnny Mandel—anyone might recall the lovelorn wishful thinking that can follow a lost relationship.

"I'll Always..." features a piano interlude of deft virtuosity by the outstanding jazz pianist Rick Carlson, who backs seven of the tracks here. Dan Chouinard's piano perfectly frames two others. Gordy Johnson on bass, David Singley on guitar, and Phil Hey on drums variously join an ideal, midnight-eloquent jazz ensemble. On No One But Me (Hixson's is the debut recording of the song) Tony Balluff's dark clarinet solo is artfully heartbreaking.

Like Coward, Bennett's life was artistically adventurous but somewhat guarded. Yet through community and sensibility, he projected and received recognition of his accomplishments in a Great Britain whose puritanical disapproval of homosexuality outlasted America's. In 1995 Gay Times named him one of the most influential gay people in the music world. His romantic relationships and their challenges, though never explicitly identified as gay, had deep reflections in his work.

The closing track on Hixson's disc is "Goodbye For Now," a self-elegy that marries wise autumnal lyrics by Charles Hart to Bennett's musical warmth and sophistication. Hixson performs the song in her singular voice: a lyrical youthful soprano with a been-around wisdom.

This disc, moonlit and moving, will be rewarding to the small audience that already knows Bennett's elegant songs, also to those just discovering him.

Track Listing

Early To Bed; No One But Me; Come Buy; I'll Always Leave The Door A Little Open; Let's Go And Live In The Country; The Bird's Lament; I Never Went Away; Soliloquy; Song Of Shadows; Goodbye For Now.

Personnel

Album information

Title: Permanent Moonlight—Songs of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Self Produced


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