Rising Star finalists compete for $5,000 prize

Four vocalists, three instrumentalists, two dancers. That's the field competing this year for the title of Howard County's Rising Star, an honor bestowed annually at the "Celebration of the Arts in Howard County." This year's gala, Saturday, March 24 in the Peter and Elizabeth Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College, includes food, a silent auction and the announcement of the year's Howie Award recipients, chosen for their contribution to the arts community.

For many, the main event is the Rising Star competition, where the county's up-and-coming performers compete "American Idol"-style for the top prize of $5,000. Each audience has a ballot and the winner is announced after the final performance.

This year's finalists (who range in age from 18 to 35 with ties to Howard County) auditioned several months ago before a panel of professionals, who were looking for artistic merit, experience in the arts and commitment to a career in the arts.

The celebration is a multifaceted signature event showcasing talented performers and raising funds for the arts in Howard County. Proceeds are split between the arts, the Horowitz Center and the arts council.

"Howard County is home to extraordinary artistic talent, and for one night each year the community comes out en masse to enjoy and support that talent," said Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council.

The 2012 "Rising Stars" are Mark Allen (musical theater), Antonio Beverly (modern dance), Joe Duffey (Irish step dance), Luke Grooms (opera), Rasa Mahmoudian (violin), Samantha McEwen (musical theater), Tim McKay (percussion), Alexandra Rodrick (opera) and Eddie Sanders III (bassoon).

The contenders

"I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a singer," Mark Allen said. "It's not an easy career but I can't imagine doing anything else."

Allen's stage career has spanned two continents, numerous theme parks and regional theaters.

"When I sang in my first show, I knew then that's where I wanted to be," says the Kentucky-born performer, who now shares his talent at Columbia's Red Branch Theater.

Dancer/choreographer Antonio Beverly is a performance major in his second year at Howard Community College, where he earned accolades for his powerful dancing in the Arts Collective Dance Company spring showcase. The 19-year-old wunderkind credits Wilde Lake High School educator Christine Estabrook for "cracking open the door to a career." Others who kept that door open include Marilyn Byers, director of the award-winning teenage troupe Dance Dimension, Broadway showman Lester Holmes, Susan Shields, Joan Nicholas-Walker and Renee Brozic Barger, who heads the HCC dance program.

"Renee has shown me there are endless possibilities once you put in the hard work."

The precision, flashy footwork, straight backs and pure lines of Irish dance are all there as Joe Duffey steps into the spotlight. Duffey praises the Teelin Irish Dance School in Columbia and, especially, director Maureen Gately.

"I love dancing and I enjoy teaching...and I'm appreciative for the opportunities that have led to my success as a finalist," he said.

The 20-year-old excels in the art of "hoofing" or what he calls, "Irish dance flavored with a lot more percussion and a bit of edginess."

Luke Grooms has sung at the Met, the New York City Opera and the Baltimore Opera Company, among other venues. He has performed over 30 roles and has also made a name for himself in musical theater, including singing in the NYC premiere of "Jerry Springer: The Opera."

"I was 17 when I first fell in love with the musical, 'Les Miz.' I practiced until I could hit that high 'C' in the show's signature song, 'Bring Him Home,' " Grooms said.

Since those high school days in east Tennessee, the tall tenor has expanded his act to include cabaret and teaching locally. "When you are an opera singer, you collect tuxedos from all over the place; it's best to use them as often as possible."

"I always wanted to be a professional musician," said Rasa Mahmoudian, who began his violin training as an undergraduate student. "After eight years, I was passionate about playing."

The Iranian-born musician chuckles, "I grew up in a non-musical family ... but they were good listeners."

Mahmoudian, who plays with the Columbia Orchestra, claims it was a dream to come to the United States. He is training at HCC's music department. "I practice every day for five to seven hours," he said, and adds that, "I am having fun."

"I started to perform in musical theater when I was in middle school," said Samantha McEwen with more than a hint of pride in competing. "I love to sing emotional songs and the best compliment is when someone comes up to me and tells me that my singing moved them," said the 29-year-old. The Columbia native admits she was shy when she first considered a showbiz career but overcame her stage fright by auditioning over and over.

"I think music touches us in a way that's difficult to explain. I can't imagine not having it," she said.

Tim McKay didn't grow up banging things around the house. "I was always the kid who was happiest outside playing baseball," said the percussionist, who lives and teaches in Howard County. "I didn't know I had a musical bone in my body until my teachers in high school started pushing me and telling me how good I was."

As a percussionist he gets to experiment with sound, much like an artist works with colors. "I hope to paint a picture that's both musically stimulating as well as intellectually intriguing," he said.

"I'm generally a pretty even-keeled girl, but being on stage gives me the opportunity to be loud and I love it," said Alexandra Rodrick. She studied classical voice at HCC and participated in the college's Little Patuxent Opera Institute, performing the title role in "Dido and Aeneas." A winner in the Young Artist Competition, sponsored by the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the mezzo-soprano will be singing "Habanera" from Georges Bizet's "Carmen."

This may be the year of the bassoon, according to Eddie Sanders III, who said, "If you're a bassoonist, you are guaranteed a scholarship," then added, "If you're a good bassoonist."

Sanders grew up in a musical family; his uncle Charlie Hampton, a band leader in Washington during the '60s, encouraged him to become a jazz musician.

"Although I started out playing the clarinet in middle school, I sat next to a girl who played the bassoon...and that changed my life," he said.

In college he combined an engineering degree with music and continues the practice of recreating his instrument.

"It's not unusual to hear one is gifted in both engineering and music," he said. "It's the same side of the brain."

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