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Young stars rise to occasion

A contest showcases the talent of juniors and seniors in the arts. Top performers win scholarships and money for their schools.

Published May 11, 2005

When Pinellas' All-County Jazz Band dug into Groove Merchant Friday night at the Mahaffey Theater, the organizers of the Walker's Rising Stars competition asked them to play a little long:

The number was intended to segue to the awards ceremony, but the judges needed extra time because the competition was so close.

"It came right down to the last minute," said Jeanne Reynolds, the school district's supervisor for music and theater and its liaison to the contest for juniors and seniors in the arts.

Despite the mounting tension, the competitors, all vying for scholarships funded by Treasure Island neurosurgeon Dr. Jeffrey Walker, were burning off their nervous energy dancing onstage behind the curtain.

After months of competition and years of performing together, these teens are more friends than rivals.

"I wouldn't have been able to judge this at all," said John Bambery, 18, a senior from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, who won first place in the vocal category after his performance of Grateful. "There was a lot of talent this year."

First-place winners in each of five categories - dance, instrumental, theater, vocal and visual arts - got $10,000 scholarships and their schools got $2,000. Second-place winners got $3,000; third place, $2,000; fourth place, $1,000.

Bambery will use his first-place prize money at the Boston Conservatory next year. Like Bambery, other competitors welcomed the scholarship because arts schools tend to be private and expensive.

"I really need it," said Leonard Williams, 19, who is heading to Point Park University in Pittsburgh. Some of the $10,000 he won in the theater category will go toward college. Williams, also of Gibbs, performed Make Them Hear You from the musical Ragtime, choosing an anthem on behalf of his fellow performers. Williams said his family's hugs were overpowering.

"I couldn't breathe," he said. "My mom said she was very proud, and that meant a lot to me."

When the time came to announce the winner in the visual arts category, Jessica Dassing lost track of the numbers.

"It didn't really hit me at first," said the 18-year-old, also of the Center for the Arts. Dassing said she wanted one of her competitors to win because she had just received a full-tuition scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute.

"They called all the other names and I didn't realize I was the only one left. Everything just went blank."

Heidi Busher also didn't expect to win. The dancer had had knee surgery in August and the competition began in January. She had to start dancing to get a grade in her program at the Center for the Arts, but used her time off to choreograph a piece that would favor her bad knee.

"I wasn't the favorite to win," she said. "I was really surprised."

Because of a history of injuries, Busher plans to focus her arts education at the State University of New York at Purchase on teaching and choreography.

The only winner not from the Center for the Arts was Tarpon Springs High School's Alex LoRe in the instrumental category, after his performance of Charlie Parker's Star Eyes. LoRe will put his winnings toward education at the University of North Florida's jazz program so he can be close to his family for a time before aiming for the Manhattan School of Music in New York. He'll also feed his college fund on gigs around town with musical partner Billy Norris, who accompanied LoRe and also took second place in a solo performance.

"We both wanted the other one to win," LoRe said of he and Norris. "We're such good friends that competition and money don't matter to us."

After the winners were announced and the party started onstage, though, LoRe had to beat feet back to the orchestra pit and rejoin the jazz band in time for a solo.

"Even though I'm in the competition," he said, "I still have a responsibility to the jazz band."

[Last modified May 11, 2005, 00:46:18]

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