Young pianist chosen as top 'Rising Star'

The Baltimore Sun

The audience at the Howard County Arts Council's 11th Celebration of the Arts decided that the youngest competitor in the annual Rising Star competition was the most promising.

When the patrons' votes were tallied Saturday night at Jim Rouse Theatre, 18-year-old pianist Alexander Francis took home the $5,000 first prize out of 10 performers at the gala fundraiser.

Francis, a home-schooled high school senior who just moved with his family from Ellicott City to Sykesville, played a medley of pop, jazz and rhythm-and-blues songs he arranged.

"Being the youngest, [winning] blew my mind a little," he said. "I was very appreciative and honored to be there ... with the other people."

Performing artists with ties to Howard County and an eye on the monetary prize have provided entertainment at the celebration for six years, combining the arts council's mission to support artists with its desire to provide an exciting evening.

"We really have outstanding talent tonight," said Coleen West, the council's executive director.

Over 11 years, including this year's event, the Celebration of the Arts has raised more than $750,000. The arts council uses that money for grants to local arts organizations, scholarships for youth, educational programs and to support artists through the Howard County Arts Center.

The evening began with several local arts groups performing music and dance while people mingled and sampled food from 25 restaurants, bakeries and catering companies.

Lynn Gershman of Pikesville joined more than a dozen family members, including her brother, Steve Gershman, who was part of the gala committee.

"We have been here every year since this started," she said. "It is well organized, well done and better every year."

Gershman, a retired teacher, said she enjoyed the international atmosphere, gesturing to the Abinaya Natya Sala Indian dance company that was performing on a smaller stage in the reception area. She also said she applauds the Rising Star competition for helping younger artists in their careers.

Howard County's visual artists also had a chance to shine at a silent auction that included painting, sculpture and decorative items by nearly 60 artists.

Samuel Berkowitz of Columbia not only had two paintings in the auction, he was volunteering at the event and attempting to purchase a scene of Paris rooftops by Columbia painter Linda Press.

"I like her loose style," he said of Press, "how she uses colors. ... She has a very interesting perspective."

Berkowitz, a psychologist, said he enjoys spending time in the auction area of the gala.

"I enjoy meeting the audience, meeting the artists," he said. "It is kind of a social thing. It is kind of exciting being around artists and seeing the beautiful work that people locally produce."

The Rising Star Competition, which was sponsored this year by the Jeffrey Group at Citi Smith Barney, again featured a range of talents, starting with first-time master of ceremonies Richard W. Story.

Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, gave smooth introductions to the speakers and performers sprinkled with a few jokes, and interviewed each Rising Star competitor.

He was chosen not only for his public speaking skill, West said, but as part of the council's commitment to increasing ties with the business community.

The voters were appreciative of performers across genres.

Francis said he has been playing piano since he was 2 and performing in public for about 12 years. He said he is drawn to performing by the audience. "I love people's reactions," he said. "I love it when people say, 'Do that again.'"

He plans to use the prize money for his education at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he will begin studying this fall. He said he is excited that the Rising Star contest offers such an opportunity to young performers.

"It makes me feel like the community cares," he said. "There are people who actually want to help me."

Second-place winner Colleen Daly, a professional singer, part-time substitute teacher and private voice teacher, sang selections from the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi.

During her interview, she said an opera singer needs to have technical singing skills, but in addition, "it is really important for us to connect to our audience emotionally."

Her Rising Star prize was $2,500, and she plans to travel to Italy this summer to perform, learn more of the Italian language and audition for directors there.

The third prize of $1,000 went to Courtney Bell, a Howard County native and professional actress who broke from the contest's tradition of musical performances by delivering a humorous monologue by Gordon Porterfield titled "Snow."

"I'm working toward a stable life in the theater, which doesn't exist," she told the audience after her performance. She also said she plans to use her prize to pay entry dues for two professional actors unions and to take singing or dancing lessons.

Along with Francis, three other instrumentalists took part in the contest. Chrissy Wallace played part of Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra in C major on piccolo; Matthew Hemerlein played an original piece on cello and guitar; and Jorge Espinoza played three tunes by Alberto Ginastera on cello.

Keesun Kwan sang a selection from the opera Mignon, by Ambroise Thomas, and singer Risa Binder chose a jazzy Duke Ellington tune, "Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce."

Aimee Velle choreographed her own modern dance to a song called "Independent" by The Books. Rebecca King performed a classical ballet piece titled "Medora Variation" from Le Corsaire.

In between performances by artists getting started in their careers, the arts council recognized the efforts of some longtime arts supporters with its Howie Awards.

Deborah Bourke was named the outstanding arts educator after 30 years of teaching visual arts in Howard County, including at Rockburn and Tridelphia Ridge elementary schools.

In an introduction, the celebration's co-chairwoman, Barbara Lawson, who is also president and CEO of the Columbia Foundation, said the Howie committee was impressed not only by Bourke's impressive resume, but by the testimonials of students.

According to Lawson, one fifth-grader said Bourke not only helped him "see the world in a different way," but was "a friend and an mentor."

The outstanding business supporter of the arts was Corporate Office Properties Trust, which has headquarters in Columbia. It gives funds to local arts programs and institutions and purchases art to place in its building for the public and its employees to enjoy.

In a speech, CEO Rand Griffin said his company has commissioned or purchased paintings, sculptures and other works of art for 250 buildings in five states.

"It does improve the community," he said "and it certainly improves the working environment."

The Howie award for outstanding artist was presented to Jason Love, music director of the Columbia Orchestra. Love is also artistic director and conductor of the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra Association and an accomplished cellist.

He told the gala audience Saturday, "I think we are going to have a renaissance in this country. I think people are ready for great art. ... I'm not going to stop until we have the highest participation in the arts of any county in the state, and that's what I'm going to work on."

Love also told the celebration's audience, "I believe that art really is the language we use to tell the story of what it is to be a human being."

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