Memories of York’s super singing spectacle

28 Nov 2012 @ 9.42 pm
| News

Our City – The Story of Ebor Vox

Summer seems a long time ago, even though it was often as cold and wet as it is now. But this film will bring back warm memories of midsummer magic.

Made by community media production team Khaoz Media, it recalls the amazing Ebor Vox singing spectacular at the heart of the York 800 celebrations.

To celebrate the release of the video, here’s an interview with the man who made it all happen…

Chris Titley meets the director of the unique event which heralded York’s big birthday in song

“It’s off-the-scale,” says Stephen Burke. “The fact that I’ve been given the city as a map to play with, and the generosity of all these hundreds of choir leaders and singers and dancers, and all these outstanding colleagues…

“It just feels like a beautiful, wonderful celebration.”

Stephen was talking about Ebor Vox, one of the most ambitious productions ever staged within the Bar Walls. At the heart of York 800 – the 800th anniversary of the city breaking free from the interference of meddling monarchs – Ebor Vox involved hundreds of singers from two dozen choirs.

Stephen, a freelance theatre director and education consultant who was appointed artistic director of Ebor Vox, led an event which saw flash-mob style “undercover” choirs bursting into song in shops and streets across the city, as well as an all-singing, all-dancing finale.

The spectacle was two years in the planning, and began with a simple idea – “If we are going to celebrate, let’s sing”.

City of York Council developed this idea into Ebor Vox, and commissioned Stephen (pictured right) to make it happen.

He readily admits his own choral background is negligible, but “I love choirs, I find them enthralling, I love the notion of the diversity of people in that choir on that particular evening.

“It’s totally egalitarian, in that you can be a barrister or you can be a binman – you are both basses, you’re singing the bass line.”

York’s existing choirs soon came on board. Some had more than 100 members, the smallest was just a trio: “I said, all voices welcome.”

Such was the interest in Ebor Vox that a new community choir was created for all the people it has inspired to sing. Afterwards they were to be “rehoused”, as Stephen puts it, in the existing city choirs.

The Ebor Vox choir in full voice at the Eye of York. Photographs: City of York Council

Various city centre shops and attractions agreed to “foster” a choir for the weekend. “So you’ll be in there shopping and the lady next to you will start singing, the lady on the other side of you will start singing. Then the three guys behind the tills will start singing.”

Composer Benjamin Till, who studied at York University, was commissioned by the council to write a choral piece to celebrate York 800. He set his music to words created by Gary Toal, a resident who won the city’s Ebor Vox poetry competition.

This piece formed the basis for the grand finale of the event on the Monday night. It began outside York Minster, when the grand old cathedral’s carillon of bells picked out the anthem before the choir assembled outside took up the melody.

As they processed through the city, more singers joined them for what Stephen described as “a rolling wave of harmony.”

At the Eye of York all the Ebor Vox singers gathered in an outward-facing circle on the grass while the audience surrounded them. Children from York schools sang too.

Adding to the spectacle were giant puppets, said Stephen, providing “this texture of dance and movement, from break dancers to morris dancers – a real community event.”

To make it work was a massive undertaking, but he had something of a track record. Stephen successfully staged the York Youth Mysteries in 2008 – a reworking of the Mystery Plays by hundreds of youngsters in dozens of venues across the city.

Summer singing.

Ebor Vox was his biggest project yet, but he had nearly a quarter of a century’s worth of experience to fall back on. Now 39, he became interested in acting aged 15 at his school in Salford, Greater Manchester.

After stints as an actor and a stand-up comedian – which “taught me that jeopardy is good” – he took a masters degree in directing with a view to working with young people in community arts. That brought him to a job running a schools programme with York Theatre Royal, and he’s not looked back since.

“Nothing else compelled me to come here apart from work. And now I’ll never leave. It’s just the most extraordinary city on the planet – second only to Venice and Barcelona.”