It felt surreal. After all the carping, the rumours, the false starts and delays, Shetland’s extraordinary new state of the art music and cinema venue finally opened its doors to the public on Saturday night.
Around 20 people waited up to three quarters of an hour in the chill wind for Mareel’s doors to open; when they did at 7.30pm a cheer went up.
At £12 million plus this is the most expensive public building in Shetland so far, outstripping the award-laden museum and archives complex, which came in late and overbudget at £11.6 million.
However while that great demonstration of resolve and imagination was opened with a bold fanfare – Prince Charles and Queen Sonja of Norway gracing the ceremony five years ago – Mareel’s opening night was more of a tentative trumpet note.
Even the fine National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland seemed surprised that they should have the honour of being the first act to tread the boards of Mareel’s ample stage, fire up its hefty sound system and bask in the glow beaming down from a ceiling bristling with lighting technology.
The audience of around 200 souls gazed around uncertainly, wondering if this was actually happening, looks of disbelief on some faces.
The truth is the building, unsurprisingly perhaps, is not 100 per cent complete. Minor details have yet to be resolved, for example extra pumps at the bar to handle more than the four brands of beer and cider, which so far include Harviestoun Brewery’s “Bitter & Twisted”.
It would be understandable if that described the mood of some towards a building more than two years behind schedule, its final cost still unclear and stuck in a financial straitjacket imposed by our last group of councillors and trustees.
Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons was not going to display any such dark emotions on opening night though.
“I don’t want to say anything to the critics,” he proclaimed. “I want to say a sincere thankyou to the supporters of Mareel that have stayed with us over the seven years, especially those people that were there right at the beginning, who had the vision 15 years ago of bringing a cinema together with a music venue.”
Gibbons did his best to explain the last few months of apparent indecision when they were given numerous assurances that the building certificates were ready, only to be disappointed at the very last minute.
Saturday night’s audience was part of the building’s road test, allowing its mechanics to be put through their paces in real time with real people.
“This,” Gibbons pointed out, “is the beginning of the beginning.” Thus no fanfare; that will come later.
To say the night was a success would be an understatement. At the end of the performance, everyone from the engineers behind the scenes to the young performers themselves could not wipe the smiles off their faces.
On stage NYJOS artistic director Professor Malcolm Edmonstone said: “We go up and down the country and every venue I have been in could learn something from what’s been achieved here. Everything is spot on!”
The show was wonderful, a rare opportunity to hear strings played in jazz, a once common phenomenon which died out due to the expense of large orchestras.
Shetland’s own multi-talented and versatile Maggie Adamson was one of four violinists, three viola players and one cello backing the quartet of Edmonstone on piano, Ruaridh Pattison on sax, Andrew Robb on bass and the brilliant Andrew Bain on drums who justified the price of the £8 ticket alone with his facial contortions!
Special mention must go to 18 year old Mairi Chaimbeul, from Skye, who entranced with her clarsach solo, supported by Edmonstone’s light tinkling, on an unnamed Duke Ellington piece. Jazz harp!
Over the past four days NYJOS have been working with 12 young Shetland musicians at a series of workshops. They will join the ensemble on stage on Sunday night for what promises to be an even better night of music.
Both concerts are being recorded in Mareel’s studio upstairs. Shetland Arts music development officer Brian Peterson says the quality – musically and technically - is good enough to be released straight to CD.
Here is a recording of one of the opening night’s tunes.
Next Thursday night will see a recital by Shetland piano maestro Neil Georgeson on the island’s magnificent Steinway that now has a venue to match its quality.
Next weekend film festival Screenplay will test out the cinema – which will be opened the previous night when promoter/publisher Malcolm Younger, fresh from his Status Quo success, cashes in the promise he won at a BBC Children In Need auction two years ago to stage the first screening.
While the disputes may drag on outside the building, Shetland’s new cultural centre is coming to life.
There are those who will focus their minds on its cost, others will concentrate on its value.
Those include former councillor Peter Malcolmson. As he stood up to leave after the low key premiere concert, he recalled an article he read many years ago in The Scotsman. Praising the standard of musicianship in the isles, the author wrote: “If it just had the facilities, Shetland’s music scene would be awesome.”
Down in Edinburgh on Friday, Creative Scotland’s chief executive Andrew Nixon told Shetland Arts chairman Jim Johnston that arts organisations throughout the country are queuing up to visit Mareel.
The national agency’s creative development director Iain Munro expressed his hope Mareel would become a “destination venue of national and international significance”.
It will offer a space for creative industries to grow, bringing major cultural, social and economic benefits to the area, he said.
If such enthusiasm and excitement can be harnessed in these islands too, the dream will come true.