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GIVING / Building the next generation of art lovers

Brotherhood of Music

The Spotlight Awards link promising young musicians with mentors who often support them often beyond the call of duty.

April 20, 1999|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Music Center's supporters will tell you: The energy that fills the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on this night every year is special.

It's not the fashion-conscious frenzy of the Oscars or the rarefied delicacy of the Philharmonic. It's more about nurturing young careers and building the next generation of arts lovers.

Tonight the 11th annual Spotlight Awards are held. Each year, after six months of competition, 12 of Southern California's most accomplished high school musicians, singers and dancers take the stage. In the audience are hundreds of their peers, teenagers, invited by the Music Center to come see their friends.

Instead of polite applause, each performance unleashes a burst of screams and cheers. It sounds more like a rousing basketball game back at school, as members of the Music Center's Fraternity of Friends proudly point out.

The fraternity is the group of art-loving businessmen and women who support the center financially and whose broader mission is to keep the arts vibrant.

And each year some of the fraternity members act as mentors to the Spotlight contestants.

About a dozen mentors are paired up with Spotlight finalists in late January. In the weeks before the competition, they may take the students and their parents to a movie, a performance, or out for a meal, where they offer their help with anything the youngsters may need, and chat about what to expect from the Spotlights.

One member, Martin Massman, is still in contact with all but one of the half-dozen students he has mentored over the years. Tonight, he will be rooting for Krista Selico, a 17-year-old voice finalist from Burbank.

To show his support, Massman recently went to Cal State L.A. to watch her perform in an opera.

"For someone to dedicate time, a genuine feeling of interest, it's amazing," said Selico, who attends the L.A. County High School for the Arts.

"I'm single and don't have a family," Massman says. "It's kind of like being a parent."

For fraternity members, some of whom have grown children, the mentorship program offers a break from the white-collar world and a chance to welcome young people personally into the center's family.

"Our devotion to the Music Center is a love of the arts," says Fred Roberts, the former Nasdaq president, who is chairman of the Fraternity of Friends and sponsorship chair of the Spotlight Awards. "To the Spotlights, it's a much bigger love. It's a love of the arts, a love of kids, a love of community. It's the best thing we do in our lives."

Though most of them wouldn't acknowledge it publicly, many mentors have done personal favors for the students--from buying them clothes for the night's performance to paying for music lessons long after the competition, according to Rick Wilson, a packaging company owner who is founder and chairman of the Spotlight mentor program.

Wilson has kept notes since he began the program in 1991. Mentors most remember Donald Vega, a jazz pianist and 1991 Spotlight winner who now, at 24, is working on his undergraduate music degree at USC.

When he tried out for the Spotlights, he was a Crenshaw High School student who had just come to the United States from Nicaragua with his parents. He didn't have anything to wear to the competition, so a fraternity member got him a tuxedo.

After the Spotlights, another fraternity member got him a tutor so he could learn English, and over the next few years she helped him pay some medical bills.

Later, when Vega was facing deportation, several mentors wrote letters to a federal judge asking that Vega be allowed to stay. He eventually was given legal status.

"They were right there for me when I needed them," Vega says.

The two finalists this year in each of the six categories are Robert Elfman and Jennifer Quan, jazz instrumental music; Selico and Robyn Yamanaka, musical theater voice; Melanie Atmadja and Adam Young, jazz modern dance; Esrom Jenkins and Tiffany Rosenquist, classical voice; Ashley Ellis and Mary Ellen Wells, ballet; Liang Wang and Wesley David Precourt, classical instrumental. In the seventh category of visual arts, the winners were selected in February and March. They are Alberto Ahumada Jr. in the poster portion and Ashley Bachelder for photography.

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The Spotlight program was created in 1988 by Walter Grauman, a longtime Music Center supporter and television producer ("Murder, She Wrote") who has served on the center's boards. He got the idea for a youth program after hearing that a girl had gone to a dinner party for young people hosted by the center and had been told by an employee not to sit on the furniture.

"I was shocked at the way the Music Center presented itself to young people," Grauman recalls.

Even after the Spotlights started, the Music Center remained an intimidating place for some finalists, who came from all over Southern California. Wilson started the mentorship program so that the students could have a personal contact.

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