Singers Take Stage

Athena Williford prefers to sing to a large crowd of strangers instead of performing in front of a small audience.

"I have a tendency to look people straight in the eye if the audience is small and close to the stage," said Athena, a 14-year-old from Stockton. "That's when I get nervous."

She didn't seem nervous Saturday when she sang to a large audience of shoppers at Vintage Faire Mall during the first round of auditions for this year's Modesto Symphony Orchestra Young Idol competition.

Athena was one of more than 100 contestants who took the stage, competing for a chance to perform at the Holiday Pops concert Dec. 7 at the Gallo Center for the Arts.

Athena sang Jennifer Holliday's "And I'm Telling You." Holliday started her career in Broadway musicals such as "Dreamgirls," and Athena hopes for the same kind of success.

"I really want to get discovered," Athena said. "I really want to go out for 'American Idol' someday."

She made it through the first round of cuts, which were announced Saturday night, becoming one of 25 expected to return to the mall today from 1 to 3 p.m. to perform for a chance to become one of 10 finalists.

After the three "celebrity" judges make their cuts today, the finalists will record demos that will be posted, along with video clips and short bios of performers, at modbee.com. Readers then can vote for their favorites, with one hopeful being eliminated each week, similar to the Fox TV show "American Idol." The winner will be announced Nov. 17.

The competition was open to performers 17 and younger and attracted a large audience. Throughout the day, a crowd of shoppers gathered near the stage and lined the second floor balcony, encircling the singers from above.

Jessica Gillette hoped her a cappella rendition of "Over the Rainbow" would lead her to the grand prize.

"I think it would be so cool to perform there," said the 16-year-old Modesto High junior after her afternoon audition. "Just to say I was one of the first to perform in there would be awesome."

Unfortunately for her, she fell just short of reaching today's round.

Jessica said she would have to go through more preparation to perform in a professional venue such as the Gallo center, accompanied by the symphony.

But preparing to perform isn't anything new for the teenage singer and actress. She has been singing since she was in kindergarten, has had six years of vocal lessons and routinely performs in plays, she said.

In 2005, she made the top eight before online fans voted her out. She said she chose the "Wizard of Oz" song because it works well without music and displays her vocal range.

Sisters Harmony and Liberty Cairns, both Ripon High students, were undaunted by the large crowd.

"We're used to everyone sitting right in front of us," said 15-year-old Liberty. "I was getting nervous seeing (the audience) up there looking down on us."

But the Cairns calmed quickly after they began to belt out their tunes. Harmony sang Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," and Liberty sang Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This."

The sisters, who missed out on advancing to today's round, have performed at several venues in Manteca and Ripon, sometimes accompanied on stage by their mother, Debra Long.

"We'll do anything to get our voices out there," said 16-year-old Harmony.

Audrey McHale, now a Modesto High senior, took the top prize in 2005, and Caroline Chiesa, now a Turlock High sophomore, won the inaugural competition in 2004.

Organizers suspended the competition last year because the symphony was searching for a new music director and administrators worried that the contest would lose its steam.

"We wanted to keep it fresh, so that it wouldn't get stale," said Paul Jan Zdunek, the symphony's president and chief executive. "The energy is back this year."

It returned partly because of the excitement surrounding the Gallo center, which opens Sept. 27. An extended prize package also gave it a boost, Zdunek said.

The grand prize includes limo service on the night of the concert, a spa package and makeover, dinner for four at Bacchus restaurant, a $100 gift card to Vintage Faire Mall and a chance for the winner to record his or her own CD for free at Celestial Sounds studio in Modesto.

This year's competition has attracted contestants from the Northern San Joaquin Valley, the foothills and even Truckee.

The judges are Holiday Pops conductor Steven Reineke, Sunny 102 FM morning show host Gary Michaels and Cindy Hwang of Concert Artists, a youth talent agency.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.