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By Ernest Hooper
The Tampa Bay Times
May 27, 2012

It rivaled every high school athletic performance I watched this year, and I saw my son’s championship football team win 15 consecutive games. But it wasn’t a sport.

It sent me reeling in the years to a time when The Big Chill captured the imagination of baby boomers both young and old. But it wasn’t Procol Harum singing A Whiter Shade of Pale.

It reminded me of a New York theatre where neon lights are bright and crowds gather to see stars born. But it wasn’t a Broadway show.

These impactful displays of artistry occurred at the David A. Straz Performing Center’s Ferguson Hall on Wednesday night, and the performers hailed from the center’s Patel Conservatory. With the Spotlight Awards, the conservatory celebrated what may be its most significant year since opening in 2005, and the spotlight shined on dynamic young talent in every performance.

The athlete? That would be 14-year-old Landon Harris from the conservatory’s Next Generation Ballet. His soaring leaps across the stage during his solo to OneRepublic’s Apologize reminded me of a dazzling receiver going across the middle of the field to catch a pass.

I’m certain if a football coach had been in the audience, he would have rushed backstage to sign Harris.

The reminiscent performance of A Whiter Shade of Pale came from a joint effort between the conservatory’s chamber orchestra and its rock school band Wasted Youth. With Lucas Coura lending vocals, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close and Jeff Goldblum flashed through my mind — but I’m going to guess none of the teens even know about The Big Chill.

Katlyn Iacovino delivered the Broadway-style solo with her rendition of Laurie’s Song from The Tender Land by Aaron Copland. If she ends up on an episode of Smash, I’ll be excited, but not surprised.

Time and again, the various performers from the conservatory’s theatre, music and dance departments impressed. As Dr. Pallavi Patel noted, many of the students indeed will grow and shine on bigger stages as bigger stars.

Yet there is more to the conservatory story than developing stars. Led by vice president of education Wendy Leigh, the conservatory expects to recognize a major goal in June when it officially receives accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and School Council on Accreditation and School Improvement — the same folks who accredit Hillsborough’s public schools.

The accreditation process means the administration went through a challenging process and much self-inspection to meet the standards. The end result will be a better school that opens more doors for its students.

Equally impressive are the conservatory’s ongoing community outreach efforts. In nearly every ensemble performance, the audience saw a diverse group of every hue and color. The school has a list of partnerships with schools and agencies and often makes site visits to offer lessons and raise awareness. That work leads to some students receiving scholarships to attend classes at the conservatory.

Greater exposure means some of the students will get a chance to reach that big stage, but a greater impact will be an introduction and appreciation of the arts.

The Patel Conservatory is growing future patrons, and you can’t underestimate the positive impact that will have on the community.

That’s all I’m saying.

© 2012  Tampa Bay Times ·

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