Tao-Chang Yu, whose violin has taken him across three continents, almost became an electrical engineer.
"The moment I decided this was what I wanted to do was after my father passed away when I was 19," Yu said. He made the right decision. On Saturday night, the sassy notes of "Carmen Fantasy" leapt off the strings of Yu's violin, captivating listeners and earning him the first-place $5,000 Rising Star Award at Howard County Arts Council's Celebration of the Arts.
Yu said his father, a musician, conductor, and teacher, helped establish a school for musically gifted children in his native Taiwan. "He ... dedicated his life to educating the next generation," Yu said.
The Evergreen Foundation awarded Yu a scholarship at age 13 to study in the United States at Peabody Preparatory and later Peabody Conservatory and the Johns Hopkins University in violin performance and electrical engineering.
However, his father's death inspired him to leave electrical engineering and pursue a career as a concert violinist, despite the challenges of a musician's lifestyle. "You have to treat it not only as a profession -- you have to keep practicing and stretching for the rest of your life," said Yu, 34. In addition to teaching private lessons in Howard County, Yu plays in a chamber ensemble called Prometheus with a cellist and pianist Kuei-I Wu, who also competed solo in the Rising Star competition. "I will use some of the money to promote [Prometheus] ... and put together a recording," Yu said.
Besides benefiting prize winners such as Yu, the 10th Celebration of the Arts raised about $80,000 for the Howard County Arts Council, according to arts council director Coleen West. The arts council manages Howard County Center for the Arts and funds scholarships, special projects and grants to local arts organizations.
About 700 people filled Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School and voted for their favorite performer. Rising Stars had to be between the ages of 18 and 35 and have lived, worked, performed regularly or received training in Howard County.
"Today is National Astronomy Day. We're not outside, but boy, are we surrounded by stars," said arts council President Jenny Leopold said after the competition.
Singer Caroline Bowman, a freshman at Pennsylvania State University, earned the second prize of $2,500 for her soulful rendition of "Maybe I Like It This Way" from The Wild Party by Andrew Lippa.
"It was very surreal to be up there. When I'm up there it feels like a second goes by because I try to be in the moment as much as I can," she said. "It's sort of like flying."
Bowman won two Cappie Awards and performed at Toby's Dinner Theatre while attending Glenelg High School. "I think it all started with 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.' ... I guess that's how I got my vibrato."
She will put most of the money into her "New York fund." After finishing her degree in musical theater, she hopes to pursue a career in New York City without relying on her parents' financial support.
Phil Olejack, 25, almost seemed to cry out during his visceral interpretation of "Gethsemane" from Jesus Christ Superstar, at some points singing with the raw pitch of someone on the verge of tears. For his emotional performance, he earned a third-place finish and $1,000.
The Silver Spring resident said afterward, "My stomach hurts."
"There's a conflict in this song from Jesus. ... It's so moving for me," he added.
The money will help him pay bills, he said, so that he can keep doing what he loves. "I'm just ecstatic," he said. "I keep telling everybody the reason I do this is very selfish."
Olejack has acted in the National Tour of Seussical The Musical, at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., and at Toby's Dinner Theatre.
In the competition, Wu played a Chopin prelude. Joel Holmes improvised on the piano for much of "Tenderly." Caitlin Donovan acted out the circumstances of her song "Quel guardo, il cavaliere ..." throwing down a magazine at one point, her eyes mischievous. Emma Jenson also sang a classical Italian song.
Jason Shafer characterized his clarinet as another "opera singer," referring to Donovan and Jenson. Brandon Chad Shaffer played "Wind Sketch" on the marimba, and Natalia Jenkins performed the violin part of a classical sonata for violin and piano.
When master of ceremonies Denise Koch of WJZ Channel 13 asked why she started playing the violin, Jenkins said, "My mom made me."
"Thank you, Mom," Jenkins said.
Two noncompetitive performers also graced the stage. The show opened with a member of the break-dancing group Anti-Lok-Breakz, who peeled off two jackets to the Pink Panther theme song.
After the performances, Stephanie Waters, who has appeared on Broadway, sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for her hometown while staff members hurriedly tallied the ballots backstage.
The evening also honored three recipients of Arts Council Howie Awards.
Sculptor Ralph Baney received the Howie Award for Outstanding Artist. He returned the night before from Trinidad and Tobago, where he has exhibited at the National Museum and Art Gallery. Baney, of Ellicott City, recently opened a studio and art gallery.
Holly and Karl Thomas received the Howie Award for Outstanding Community Supporters of the Arts.
"I hope our enthusiasm is contagious. ... Let's catch the fever." said Holly, who co-founded the Columbia Orchestra. Holly and Karl have led the Candlelight Concert Society in organizing its concert series.
Glenelg Country School staff members and students cheered on Carole Lehan, recipient of the Howie Award for Outstanding Arts Educator. "I'm a collaborator. I'm not a solo act," said Lehan, director of performing arts at Glenelg Country and program director for the Cappies of Baltimore.
Before the Rising Stars competition, guests sampled cuisine from 25 restaurants and caterers while watching performances by local musicians and groups including the Columbia Jazz Band, the Columbia Orchestra Chamber Group and pianist Patricia Hammer.
At the same time, a silent auction showcased sculptures, mosaics, jewelry, glassware, and other work by local artists.
Upon her friend's urging, Emily Lincoln of Columbia raised her bid for James Tschergi's oil painting Main Street, Ellicott City another $20. "I wouldn't think of not coming. [I come for] the company, the art, the cause, all of it," Lincoln said.
Steve and Becki Gershman first discussed the idea for a Howard County arts showcase and fundraiser 11 years ago. Although not performers themselves, the Gershmans' brainchild has since raised $652,850 for arts programs and projects in Howard County.
"It's such a feel-good event," West said. "I'm always just really amazed by the talent here in Howard County. ... Everybody left feeling happy. The energy was just so great."
Said Leopold: "An investment in the arts is an investment in quality of life. ... I say this every year, but this has to be the best show ever."