The compositions of Constella Music’s artistic director Leo Geyer are, if anything, unique. Sometimes deliberately jarring, for reasons Geyer explains in his introductions to the various pieces in an eclectic programme, they are best enjoyed by patrons who like experimental music. Geyer’s drive and ambition is admirable, particularly in a world where the temptation for production companies is to stage revivals of works known to put bottoms on seats. What he calls “daring creativity” is unusual at the best of times, but with financial constraints being what they are for many, irrespective of industry, it’s all the more a refreshing and distinctive approach.
Not that I cared much for ‘London Portraits’, an opera-ballet that didn’t say anything new, a series of observations about life in the capital – how the streets in the City become filled with morning commuters rushing here and there. Waterloo Station is a crowded place in the evening rush hour (who knew?), and Londoners apparently never have any time for anything. Even more bizarrely, the piece suggests Londoners, because of the pace of city life, have no capacity for love, an assertion at best incorrect and at worst patronising. As for London being “the city that never sleeps”, all I will say is that I tried to drop by a shop the other day that was supposedly open until 11:00pm. It was closed when I got there, just after 9:00pm. In this piece, the dancing in the opera-ballet was passable, and while Sofia Kirwan-Baez wasn’t singing anything profound, she was crystal clear, which as most laypersons (like me) will testify, isn’t always the case in opera.
But Constella Music more than redeems itself in two ways. Its commitment to continuing ‘Connecting Stars’, a rolling programme of performances in care homes. It is not the only method by which, as Constella’s patron, Sir Willard White, put it, the company provides live music to “parts of the community often overlooked”, but it appears to be the primary mechanism. As ever, success breeds success, and through a combination of Arts Council England funding and private philanthropy, Constella has clocked up some 1,500 performances in various care homes, with more in the calendar.
The second redemption, so to speak, is in extracts from a new opera-ballet ‘The Orchestras of Auschwitz’, a project which has already seen coverage in, amongst other places, CNN, ITV News and The Times. Seven years in the making, it was inspired by Geyer visiting Auschwitz after he was commissioned to compose a piece of music to honour the life of Sir Martin Gilbert (1936-2015), perhaps best known for being the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, and who also wrote a large number of books about the Holocaust, including ‘Auschwitz and the Allies’ and ‘The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy’.
Geyer claims no Jewish ancestry whatsoever, to the best of his knowledge. On a return visit to Auschwitz, he looked more closely at what music compositions had survived – 210 fragments, some burned at the edges. Most of the music did not survive, and everything that did is incomplete. Geyer set out to write an opera-ballet based on the fragments, and the result is ‘The Orchestras of Auschwitz’, performed as it might have been in Auschwitz, with an accordion, saxophone, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, tuba, violins, a viola, a cello and a double bass – and neither piano nor flute in sight.
Listening to Geyer summarise his research into Auschwitz’s orchestras was a harrowing experience in itself – the players would change from day to day, as any number of musicians might be selected to be sent to the gas chambers, forcing rapid re-arrangements, despite the orchestras being commissioned by the Third Reich in the first place. They would play in all weathers for various reasons: inmates given hard labour marched out to work to the beat of the music, and marched back again at the end of the working day. And, of course, there were demands by the SS for them to play for their entertainment.
Geyer’s work is not entirely without controversy, including at least one piece by a German composer, largely forgotten (both the composer and his work), presumably because there was – and is – little appetite to listen to the music both written and enjoyed by the Nazis. But orchestras in Auschwitz were forced to play it and other pieces like it, so I would agree it should, on balance, be included, to give as full a flavour as possible of the kind of music that might have been heard at the time.
Constella Music’s ambition is to bring a full production of ‘The Orchestras of Auschwitz’ to a London venue in January 2025, and this milestone concert served, in part, as an appeal for additional funding towards this goal. Some of the sampled pieces showcased in this concert were intriguing, to say the least, revealing an inventiveness and rebelliousness on the parts of the orchestrators and arrangers, who had even incorporated ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ by American composer John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) and ‘St Mary’s Trumpet Call’, a Polish bugle call, into their repertoire.
Finally, the baritone soloist at this concert, Simon Wallfisch, is a grandson of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, 98, a surviving member of the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz. I wish Constella Music well with ‘The Orchestras of Auschwitz’ and other future endeavours.
By Chris Omaweng
Constella Music is the creative powerhouse behind the award-winning composer and conductor, Leo Geyer. Constella Music publishes and performs Geyer’s work spanning opera, dance, film, concert music, and acts as production company for Geyer’s increasing portfolio in broadcast presenting. Collaboration sits at the heart of Constella Music, encompassing pioneering professional musicians and dancers, and collaborations with visual artists, poets, historians, garden designers, architects, scientists, healthcare workers and more. The driving energy behind Constella Music is harnessing the expressive power of music for social good.
10th Anniversary Concert