Excellence in the Community has presented live concerts throughout Northern Utah for over two decades, but their last live concert in Salt Lake City was with Dee Dee Darby Duffin on March 15, 2020.
Because of the pandemic, they cancelled concerts in Ogden and Salt Lake, and one in Price was scuttled the same day as the show. (Executive Director Jeff Whitely confirmed that despite the late cancellation, “We paid the band, it wasn’t their fault.”)
Excellence tested an online show on March 25, 2020, paused for lockdown, and resumed on April 16, settling on live-streamed performances on Wednesday and Saturday nights throughout the pandemic. Excellence in the Community presented 106 concerts in 2020, mostly streamed after April, in addition to an exceptional series of four live “Drive In Concerts” in Holladay during the summer.
The live stream crew includes Whitely, video specialist Will Larson, Austin Meeks of Taylor Audio, Carter Madsen, Jesse Burrup, photographer Lex Anderson, and Adrian Miller.
“We try to keep [staff numbers] extremely low. We work very closely with city, and county health regulations — nobody gets into the Gallivan Center without wearing a mask. Forehead temperatures are scanned for everybody,” said Whitely, detailing precautionary measures taken due to the pandemic.
In the performance area, artists are spaced six feet apart and masks stay on unless performing or rehearsing. Other measures include hand sanitizer, contact-tracing forms and even limits on the number of performers. “We think in quintets. Occasionally we’ll have six,” said Whitely, noting that the streaming team has “problems with spacing and camera angles if there are more people.”
Despite presenting obvious issues for live music, the pandemic has also provided some new opportunities. “Vedrana Subotic, a Music professor at the University of Utah, had previously lined up an Intermezzo Chamber Music Series for the summer at Westminster College’s theater,” said Whitely. “They couldn’t allow the public gathering, so she gave us a call to see if we could make something happen.” That something was initially six Monday night concerts, and the partnership has continued with one Intermezzo concert per month.
While Intermezzo includes members of the Utah Symphony, Excellence has also presented some very successful shows working with Paula Fowler of Utah Opera, demonstrating the series’ — and the venue’s — versatility. “The Gallivan Center is a quality venue. Daynes Music has provided the seven-foot Steinway,” Whitely proudly states. “We’re very grateful to have a platform that allows us to work with musicians to give them a chance to perform, and we believe in the healing and transformative power of music.”
Despite the increase in classical programming, jazz continues to contribute to the success of Excellence. The series features world-class players who teach at Utah’s colleges and universities, like Corey Christiansen from Utah State and Phil Kuehn from Snow College. West High School graduate and sax-master Ray Smith also performs regularly, as does his colleague Steve Linderman of BYU.
The late Courtney Isaiah Smith, a pillar of the Salt Lake music scene, performed almost a dozen online dates for Excellence before his untimely, tragic passing last February. The blues are also represented by the likes of Harry Lee, who grew up on Salt Lake City’s West Side and performed during Black History Month.
The internet has brought these local talents to audiences from surprising places outside the United States, with 255,000 viewers watching Intermezzo’s Tango concerts and 607,000 watching Mariachi De Mi Tierra on January 2, 2021. Whitely said that Excellence gives Utah musicians international exposure with their live streams: “Monika Jalili’s January concert caught the attention of the BBC. They aired an interview with her and a clip of our concert. The Voice of America published an article in Farsi about her and posted a link on their site.”
Whitely’s goal after the quarantine is to continue live streaming, along with conventional live concerts once it is safe to hold them again. However, this would double the technical budget of every show. During the pandemic, this increase was largely covered by public funding because private sources were significantly reduced due to COVID-19. “Our community needed music, our musicians needed opportunities, and our city leaders agreed,” Whitley noted, praising the vision of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Gallivan Center Director Talitha Day. “They like what Excellence is doing, and see it as a benefit to the community.”
With funding, Whitely sees that benefit as scalable. “If every sector — private, governmental, and corporate — put in a little bit of money, we could change Utah rapidly for such a small amount,” says Whitely, “We are a very modest non-profit, but have a formula that could be taken to any part of the state. Our simple vision is: Utah has amazing diverse talent and resources, so let’s harness that talent. We want every kid to grow up saying: ‘My town gave me great music.’ That’s very possible for us, to make our drive for artistic excellence more visible and part of the Utah brand.”