Monday, 2 July 2012

Ebor Jorvik Yerk Yorke Yark York York!


I can’t tell if the water dripping off my head, and running down my trouser leg is sweat or rain. I am in the majestic train station at York waiting for the 9.16pm to London King’s Cross. There’s something rather romantic about making the journey from York to London. I guess it goes back to the old coaching days. Pepys often talked about Yorke’s Wagons; in fact, it was the arrival of a Yorke’s stagecoach in London at the tail-end of the plague which indicated to him that life was getting back to normal again.

I’m buzzing. We’ve just done the dress rehearsal for Ebor Vox. About 400 people must have walked through the streets of York starting at York Minster and ending at Clifford’s Tower, singing my music as they wound through the streets. There are very few words to express how emotional that can be for a composer.

I reached York at 3pm, and immediately went into a series of interviews. For some reason the charming bloke from Derry who spoke to me first brought out a sort of wicked sixth former in me. I think he reminded me of my mate Pete from university, and subsequently everything he said made me want to talk in a Northern Irish accent! I misbehaved terribly. He laughed, so I assume he wasn’t offended and I hope I said enough sensible stuff for him to cut something useful together.  

I then called in on my old friend, John La Carillon, 150 steps up one of the towers of York Minster. What a cool place to meet someone for a natter! I could have sat there all day. John is a convivial and most fascinating man, whose claim to fame is having played at the funeral of one of the Krays. He also played the carillon (a set of tuned church bells) on A Symphony for Yorkshire, and the piano a year later when we resurrected the third movement of the work at an awards ceremony. No composition about York would be complete without the Minster Carillon, or, in fact, John playing the Minster carillon; and that’s why I’m thrilled that Ebor Vox is starting this way.

There is a section in my composition called the “breakout,” when 8 or so choirs get to sing little show- off sections, which all interweave. When we attempted the sequence last Monday it came to a crashing halt, and I began to wonder if I’d written something unattainable in the time we had, and the peculiar acoustic at the York Eye. I could tell a lot of hard work had gone into learning the music, but it just seemed one step too far.

An extra half hour rehearsal was therefore called today in the Catholic church round from the Minster so that we could decide if it was a section we’d be able to do.

I don’t know if it was because everyone was present for the first time, or because people had all gone away and done a bit of private practice, but it was like everyone simultaneously found the key to the door, unlocked it,  and then decided to batter it down for the hell of it! We raised the roof – and some. I think many of the singers were genuinely exhilarated by the experience and lots of them came up to me afterwards to say how they’d suddenly understood everything and were thrilled to be taking part in the section.# blushing #more pride #take that Sally Brown.

As the rehearsals roll past, I see more and more characters in the choirs whom I find myself drawn towards. Some people simply love singing, and it’s the most infectious thing in the world to witness. I also love watching the leaders of each of the choirs, and the rapport they have with their singers, one of whom conducted me in my first term at university in a Gilbert and Sullivan show. I took her on a picnic to Whitby in December 1992, and insisted that everything in the basket was orange. It rained all day and so we sat in a car park eating orange jelly, red Leicester cheese and wotsits before driving back to York again. It’s been brilliant to see her again after all this time.

When 20 or so amateur and semi-pro singers get together in one City alone, one is reminded just how many choirs there are out there in the world. It is thrilling to realise that, every night of the week, behind a myriad doors in thousands of towns, cities and villages, people are singing; and experiencing the joy that singing brings. I maintain that the feeling of singing in three or four part harmony is about as good as it gets. Heaven on earth in fact.

We ran the anthem I’ve written for the project last of all – as the rain started to fall. I have never needed to conduct so big in my life. It’s less a baton that I need and more a blinkin’ light sabre! The musicians and singers are spread out over about 100 meters, and they have to watch like hawks to keep together.

The anthem sounded wonderful however; magical – and there’s some charming dancing and sequences of movement going on in front of the singers... so charming, in fact, that all I wanted to do was join in with them... and I did from time to time.

And what of Pepys? He was up "with the 4am chimes" and spent the day paying the hundreds of Navy men who'd helped to bring Catherine de Breganza from Portugal to London.

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