After years of waiting, and in recent days frustration built upon frustration, Mareel finally opened its doors to the public this weekend with a pair of concerts from the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland (NYJOS).
There will be a little more waiting before the venue gets fully up-and-running – its doors won’t open to the public again until Neil Georgeson’s classical piano recital on Thursday, while the cinema screens will spark into life 24 hours later.
After hosting Shetland Arts’ book and film festivals Screenplay and Wordplay (beginning this weekend), in September Mareel will house the annual blues festival and an exciting concert to celebrate the Anderson High School’s 150th anniversary, while the full programme of films will begin too.
The fanfare opening will come later, with a full opening season of yet-to-be-announced events stretching from October through until December.
But there was a palpable sense of relief from Shetland Arts staff and management after the first ever paying punters – around 200 on Saturday and 150 on Sunday – were shepherded into the grand North Ness complex.
Introducing each evening, Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons spoke of the culmination of an “immense journey” for a huge number of people. He paid tribute to the “vision and ambition” of those who first envisaged a cinema and music venue more than 15 years ago.
After all the recriminations, he told the audience “I don’t want to say anything to the critics”, instead delivering a heartfelt thank you to all of the supporters who have stuck with the project during some trying times.
Mr Gibbons said the NYJOS concerts were “the beginning of the beginning” and a “highly fitting” way to get the ball rolling. It ties in with the significant educational aspects to the venue, which will see college course students getting into the building for inductions later this week.
The two jazz orchestra concerts had not originally been programmed for Mareel, but the management were so eager to get things going that, when news came through on Friday afternoon that a temporary two-month licence had been granted, the performances were shifted at short notice.
The NYJOS collective – some faces more youthful than others – consisted of a jazz quartet, string ensemble and clarsach (Celtic harp). Shetland’s own Maggie Adamson was one of four violinists, and the musicians seemed to relish being the first to benefit from the hi-tech venue’s pristine, pin-sharp sound.
The raked seating made for a glorious view and an intimate environment as the assembled musicians raided the Great American Songbook for a wide-ranging set drawing on the work of jazz greats Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock.
Directing the “Summer MusicFest” were pianist Malcolm Edmonstone and drummer Andrew Bain, their jazz quartet completed by tenor saxophonist Ruaridh Pattison and, on upright bass, Andrew Robb.
The addition of a string section made for a lush, sweeping sound with the violinists complemented by a trio of viola players, cellist David Munn and – meriting special mention for her spellbinding rendition of an Ellington piece – 18-year-old clarsach player Mairi Chaimbeul, from Skye. Incidentally, Chaimbeul took lessons from Fiddlers’ Bid harpist Catriona McKay.
Sunday night’s concert saw the audience treated to the end product of a rhythm workshop, as a flock of local musicians joined in to perform Hancock standard Watermelon Man, swelling the numbers on stage comfortably past the 20 mark. It was a sprawling, complex and staggeringly impressive piece of music, not least because the entire rehearsal had lasted less than an hour.
Speaking afterwards, Maggie Adamson said the sound quality had been “fantastic” and she thought the venue had a “really nice feel with it”.
“It was a great opportunity to be the first Shetlander to play,” she said. “It’s a very professional stage and all the crew were extremely helpful. The audience feels really close to you, it’s a nice atmosphere and you can see the faces of some of the people.”
Edmonstone – a senior professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – was gushing in his praise, saying that though it may have taken a while, Mareel has “got it absolutely right” and there is something every venue in the country could learn from it.
Providing just a hint of the extraordinary possibilities offered by the venue, Shetland Arts was able to post a sound clip online (listen here) within hours of the opening night. The building’s upstairs recording studio can record a live feed directly from the auditorium, and one hope is to persuade top acts to use Mareel to make live albums.
Music development officer Bryan Peterson said it was the first time the recording system had been fully tried out in this way, and it had gone “seamlessly”.
“With the minimum of effort we can make release-quality recordings, no problem at all,” he said. “NYJOS were absolutely delighted with the results, we’re going to mix it for them and they’re considering making a live album. That was the first time we had tried it, and it worked perfectly – it’s one of the things we’re hoping will attract bands up here.”
There is no doubt this project would have had an easier ride politically had it been built in the cash-happy 1990s. Making the books balance will certainly present a considerable challenge, but as long as it is astutely programmed this top-notch building will surely be cherished and embraced by the community.
Those taken on a tour of this majestic venue towards the tail-end of its troubled construction phase have been left genuinely blown away, and it’s hard to see how anyone could fail to be impressed. We are surely looking at a real game-changer for social and cultural life in Shetland.