Howard high schools commemorate Columbia founder's artistic appreciation

Students from across Howard County are rehearsing preformances for the upcoming HCPSS Fine Art Celebration for Columbia's 50th Anniversary.

When James Rouse founded Columbia in June 1967, arts and education were inclusive components for the healthy, growing community, according to Pam Land, Howard County public school's lead theater arts teacher.

To remember a man who supported the dreams of future artists, Land said more than 700 students representing Howard County's 12 high schools will share Rouse's influence on their passions during a Columbia 50th birthday tribute on Sunday, April 23 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at Merriweather Post Pavilion.


Students representing each high school will give a five-minute artistic performance based on quotes from Rouse gathered within the last 50 years and selected by their respective teachers. Singers, dancers, instrumentalists and visual artists will use their talents to tell the tale of Rouse and Columbia as part of the city's ongoing birthday celebration, which spans six months.

"A great deal of Rouse's hope for Columbia is in this idea of having not just purveyors of art forms, but also practitioners of art forms," Land said. "We have very strong curricular arts programs in the Howard public school system [and] to have an opportunity to showcase them is awesome."


Among the Rouse quotes to be used in the tribute is:

"An inspired, concerned and loving society will dignify man; will find the ways to develop his talent; will put the fruits of his labor and intellect to effective use; will achieve brotherhood; eliminate bigotry and intolerance; will care for the indigent, the delinquent, the sick, the aged; seek the truth and communicate it; respect difference among men."

Led by Marlys East, managing director of the nonprofit Columbia's 50th Birthday Celebration, event planners have scheduled nearly 100 celebratory events for the 50th birthday celebration, which kicked off last month and will conclude with a week-long finale in September.

East said the high school tribute idea blossomed last year in March when she was driving around the county and saw signs advertising several high school spring musicals. During discussions with the school system's fine arts coordinator, Gino Molfino, East said the original plan was to select segments from each musical and string them together for one large-scale performance.


"He has brought it to a level that's even bigger than we imagined," she said. "The kids are the future and this is really a celebration of potential as much as it is reflection. It's something that's never been done."

A selection of students from all of the high schools will unite for the opening and closing performances of popular Broadway musical numbers, Molfino said, with about 40 choral students and 25 dancers. Not all students are familiar with the songs that will be performed during the opening and closing; however, Land, Molfino and several other teachers have helped students prepare during four, four-hour rehearsals, dedicating two rehearsals for each performance.

"It's huge. When Columbia 50th came to us and said, 'We have this opportunity,' it was great, Molfino said. "It was like a snowball; we started out with an idea and it got bigger and bigger and bigger. It has become a mammoth of an event that we're really excited about."

County music teachers have also volunteered to form an orchestra for the two musical numbers, Land said. Another producer of the tribute, Ellicott Mills Middle School band director Joe Fischer, said they've had an overwhelming response from interested volunteers to accompany the performances of singers and dancers.

Ross Rawlings, a music teacher at Glenelg High School, will serve as the show's music director.

Bringing these talented teachers and students to the Merriweather stage is an unbelievable opportunity, Fischer said.

"In general, Merriweather is usually reserved for world-class, private acts; not necessarily too many high schoolers who get to perform on that stage. When we look at the professional world – and Merriweather is starting to gear up now for all of their spring and summer events – the opportunity for Howard County high school students to be onstage there is quite exceptional."

The individual school segments – rehearsed over the last couple of months – will be performed in the order each school was established in the county, beginning with Howard High School, which opened in 1952. Some schools will have smaller groups, while others are sending more than 100 students.

Schools may also incorporate theater pieces into their performances from fall and spring productions, Molfino added. Overall, the show will convey Rouse's story and highlight his ideals.

"This showcase celebrates Rouse, his vision and his philosophy for Columbia," Molfino said. "The actual production will be a run through of Columbia of the past, Columbia of today and Columbia of the future."

Centennial High School senior Miguel Fernandez, an 18-year-old lifetime resident of Columbia, said he was drawn to the tribute event as a singer. Fernandez has participated in several choirs since fourth grade and will attend Elon University in North Carolina in the fall, where he plans to major in musical theater.

"Art is pretty much pure expressionism of the human nature," Fernandez said. "You can portray Columbia in a number of statistics and facts, but what makes it more enjoyable is performing it with song and dance."

Although he's grown up to appreciate Columbia, the high school senior said he knew very little about its founder prior to the tribute preparation. For example, Fernandez said, he knew Rouse was behind the Jim Rouse Theatre and Performing Arts Center in the Village of Wilde Lake; however, he wasn't sure why.

"He was an entrepreneur for Columbia," Fernandez said. "I think it's super cool to be a part of a celebration. Singing with choreography is right up my alley and I really enjoy it, in general. The songs we're singing are so much fun and everyone has such a good sense of humor."

At Glenelg High School, senior Linda Roby said she's also been rehearsing with the opening and closing groups as part of the soprano singers in the chorus. The 18-year-old Woodbine resident first joined the school's theater and choir during her freshmen year when she performed in "The Little Mermaid" fall musical.

Roby has since expanded her horizons with the Young Artists of America at Strathmore and Young Columbians as part of Toby's Dinner Theatre.

"A lot of people, who I've talked to about theater, say it's an escape from your regular life, but I actually think it's quite the opposite," Roby said. "I feel like in theater and singing, I found myself. … I'm meeting new people in a county I've been very involved in for a very long time."

Performing alongside students from other schools and grades with Rawlings at the helm has been eye opening, she said.

"It's hard work. I'm truly excited to perform on a stage that has plenty of amazing artists on it. Being able to perform at Merriweather is just astonishing."


Through a series of vignettes, historical facts and photos, Land said the performance will offer the community a look into Rouse and his hopes for Columbia and the artistic progression.


"Hopefully, by the end of the night, we'll get the depth and breath of the performing arts programs at the high schools and have learned something about the history of Columbia and its founder."

No tickets or registration is required for the high schools Columbia 50th tribute, and only lawn seating is available. For more information, go to columbiamd50.com/events/hcpss-fine-arts.

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