Giving Young Performers a Chance to Earn the Spotlight


The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion may no longer be the site of the Academy Awards (at least for now), but it's still the place to be the night after the Academy Awards this year, when young California performers will get boosts toward professional careers at the 10th annual Spotlight Awards. Presented by the Los Angeles Music Center Tuesday night, the Spotlight Awards give gifted high school students throughout Southern California the chance to compete with their peers and the thrill of appearing onstage at the 3,200-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Sponsors include Pacific Bell Foundation, Helen and Peter Bing, Ticketmaster, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, Music Center support groups and many others.

Offering $45,000 annually in scholarship funds, the Spotlight Awards have given youths the opportunity to further their studies. And, while the award can't guarantee success, a healthy number of distinguished young artists have been identified in the competition process.

Past winners include dancer Matthew Rushing, who returned to the Pavilion stage this week for four performances with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (see the review of the Ailey company's opening performance, F1). Rushing has a leading role in "Night Creatures" tonight and Sunday. Another former awardee, pianist Max Levinson, went on to win the 1997 Dublin International Piano Competition and gave a critically acclaimed concert debut at Los Angeles' Skirball Center in 1997.

Flutist Gregory Jefferson, 1992's classical music winner, launched a successful solo career that has included performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other major orchestras. Dancer Natalie Willis went on to perform with the Rockettes and will be among the dancers in Monday night's Academy Awards show.

In a rigorous series of auditions held in their home communities, two finalists from various artistic disciplines--ballet, modern/jazz dance, classical vocal music, musical theater vocal music, classical instrumental music and jazz instrumental music--are selected from a pool of applicants. This year more than 700 students applied from five counties. The finalists are judged as they perform in an evening concert at the Pavilion, and winners and runners-up in each category are announced at the end of the performance. The first prize is $5,000 in scholarship money, the runners-up win $2,500.

While having just two competitors in the final rounds may seem tough on the loser, awards producer Barbara Haig sees it differently. "I really like to tell the kids that, even if they are declared runner-up, they are still a winner, to get to that level," she said. "They still get a scholarship, they still get the recognition, they still get to perform for the same people. And they can still put it on their resumes."

One of the finalists, ballet dancer Heather McGreevey of Valencia High School, has already met her competitor, Misty Copeland of San Pedro. "She's nice," McGreevey said. "It's hard not to get into the whole competing thing, but whether I win the $5,000 or not, I'll do my best, and maybe even [gain] a friend."

Instrumental jazz finalist Miles Mosley, a student at Los Angeles' Hamilton Academy of Music, agrees. "I just went into it and had fun, and I think the judges grooved on that," he said of the audition process. "Win or lose, who cares? You still have $2,500. . . . It's cool."

In addition to the performing arts awards, Spotlight offers the $1,500 Donald G. Tronstein visual arts award, which this year goes to Norwalk High School senior Alex Navarro. Runner-up Kristina Godfrey of Fallbrook wins a $1,000 scholarship; there are five other winners of $250 each in visual arts.

The Spotlight Awards--which this year will be the subject of a TV documentary (to air on KCET-TV Channel 28 in June)--are the brainchild of film and television producer Walter Grauman, who for many years has served on various Music Center boards. His commitment to the project grew out of a meeting between the board of the Music Center's Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum and some young visitors more than a decade ago.

Two of those young people said that though they were impressed with the grandeur of the Pavilion, they felt put off by condescending tour docents. One young woman reported that during a visit to the Founders Room, she had been told not to sit down because she "might dirty the furniture."

"It was a terrible statement to make," Grauman said. "Her reaction was that it was an elitist, arrogant, snobbish place. [That] sort of got me angry, that we would have this kind of attitude.

"I felt it was a crime that there wasn't greater opportunity for young talents to be seen and to have an entree to a professional career, and to this magnificent temple of culture . . . and also, I felt very strongly that the Music Center should have the opportunity to interface with young people from every strata of society--it would break down prejudices in both directions and work against that elitist perception."

Past winner Donald Vega, a Nicaraguan native who started out practicing piano technique on a homemade paper keyboard because he couldn't afford a piano, is now a USC senior with a prestigious slot in a college jazz ensemble. Vega said his 1991 award not only brightened his professional future but changed his life. Vega has a cleft palate, and competition benefactor Helen Bing has quietly paid for a series of surgeries to correct the condition.

"It was a blessing; I call her my angel," he said. "The great thing about Spotlight is, it is a family--they keep track of the people who have won. For me, it is an amazing organization that is making a difference.

"The Spotlight Awards have opened doors," Vega continued. "I think that if I hadn't had that opportunity, I don't think anybody would know me now. Winning this competition was like saying, 'I can do it,' that I can say something with my instrument."

* Spotlight Awards, Tuesday at 7 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. $10. (213) 202-2271.

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