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A promising pianist.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Being a world-class concert pianist is an extravagant dream, one that only a highly talented, hyper-determined and very lucky person can realize.

The fact that it is even a possibility for 15-year-old Priscilla Dantas is remarkable.

Dantas hails from a poor neighborhood in Olinda, Brazil, one of four children raised in a tiny brick home her dad built on an unoccupied plot. Though her father has a high school education and a job that keeps the family afloat, there is little extra. Few local kids have much in the way of aspirations, and college seems out of the question for most.

Until three years ago, that's how it was for Dantas, too. "I didn't even know what `university' was," she said.

But a couple of lucky breaks have ballooned into a world of promise, thanks in no small measure to Dantas' extraordinary musical gifts.

Dantas, who still lives with her family in Brazil, is in Eugene this month to thank her benefactors, give a series of public recitals and scope out the city where she eventually hopes to complete a goodly portion of her education - first at Churchill High School, for her senior year in 2010-11, and then the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.

"I have more opportunities here, more opportunities to play in other countries," Dantas said this week, sitting in the southwest Eugene living room of Bob Crites and his Brazilian wife, Dalva Perrusi-Crites, a couple she has come to consider "family." "The education here is stronger than in Brazil."

Crites, a longtime Springfield School District counselor who retired in 2003, is the founder of Students Helping Street Kids International, a small aid organization that has helped pay the costs of private school tuition, books and other supplies for 51 impoverished children in Brazil and Tanzania during the past 10 years.

Dantas is one of those - although her story is a bit different from the norm.

She was already a budding talent when Crites met her 3 1/2 years ago. A former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Brazil, Crites lives half the year in Recife, a city of more than 1.5 million near Olinda, and was invited to one of Dantas' recitals by an acquaintance familiar with his program.

"They never said, `Here's a girl we'd like you to take a look at,' but I figured that's what it was," Crites recalled.

Dantas, then 11, had been taking piano lessons for free since the age of 9, at the Olinda conservatory for which her father works as a security guard.

Unlike most of Street Kids International's beneficiaries, she wasn't a child of the "favelas," the crime-ridden, destitute shantytowns found in many of Brazil's urban centers. Her parents were loving and supportive, even cobbling together enough to send her to a private school - though it was one of very poor quality, Crites said.

Captivated by her playing, Crites decided to offer Dantas a scholarship.

"With her musical talent, I felt that she needed an equally strong academic foundation if she really wanted to succeed," he said.

Through private donations and student-fund-raised scholarships from Churchill and Springfield high schools and Springfield's Yolanda and Centennial elementary schools, Dantas has been well-supported over the last three years.

The money, approximately $4,500 a year, pays all necessary costs - including bus fare for her and her mother - so she can attend a top-notch private school, the Pernambuco Music Conservatory in Recife, where she studies with Professor Levi Guedes; and a separate English language academy. It even provides vitamins, hair styling and some food, to keep Dantas in performance shape.

Won three competitions

She has become something of a celebrity in Brazil, winning first place in three consecutive piano competitions in Recife and performing throughout the region. She's been the subject of two national television news stories, and a year ago performed with the Symphonic Orchestra of Recife in the Teatro Santa Isabel, a spectacular 19th-century theater (watch her performance on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8XZrPn9NZY).

Eight months ago, she got her first piano - a gift from a local businessman and arts patron who was impressed by her talents.

"Oh my God, I cried!" she recalled. "I was so happy, so happy, so happy."

At the time, the only place the upright piano would fit was in the tiny main living area of her home. A short time later, the family had to move when Dantas' father grew fearful after witnessing a drug deal and receiving threats. At their new home in Recife, in a slightly better neighborhood, the piano fits - barely - in Dantas' bedroom. She practices four hours a day.

Dantas' English is patchy, though it doesn't seem to shake her confidence in the least. At her first recital Tuesday at the Downtown Athletic Club, she charmed a roomful of Rotarians, wowing them with her prowess on a shiny black Yamaha grand.

Wearing a sleeveless pink, black and white flower-print dress and a sparkly butterfly hair clip, she offered an earnest handshake, a lovely smile and "Thank you very much!" to each person who came up to speak with her afterward. One, a visitor from Australia, asked for her autograph; another gushed, "You're magic!"

Also in the crowd was the man who, with Crites, is responsible for her visit to Eugene and may play a big role in her future. UO Professor Alexandre Dossin, who grew up in southern Brazil, heard Dantas' story a year ago when Crites happened to stop by the university to talk with a friend in the School of Music and Dance about possible future scholarships for Dantas.

Recognized her talent

A piano virtuoso himself, Dossin recognized Dantas' talents when he watched DVDs of her performances over time.

"I noticed a huge improvement from year to year, so I immediately told (Crites) she's a great talent," said Dossin, who studied in Russia and has been at the UO two years. "Her story really touched my heart, that someone from a poor family in Brazil would go into classical music. That's really unique."

Dantas plays classical piano almost exclusively, and memorizes pieces extraordinarily quickly. Among her favorites are Franz Schubert's Impromptu in E-Flat (Opus 90, No. 2) and much of the work of Brazilian composer Hector Villa-Lobos. Her upcoming recital program also includes Mozart's Sonata in A-Minor and Mendelssohn's Rondo Capriccioso (Opus 14).

Tuesday was the first time Dossin had seen Dantas perform live, and she didn't disappoint. "She has a very nice, easy technique and phrasing," he said. "That's something that shows she has a great teacher and natural talent."

It was Dossin's idea to arrange a series of performances and bring her to Eugene, hoping it would help her improve her skills, raise her profile and establish a fund for her future schooling. He left the arrangements to Crites.

"It was just a crazy idea," Dossin said. "I didn't expect it to happen so fast. But Bob is like that."

Dossin, who has agreed to give her free piano lessons during her year at Churchill, believes she has a strong chance of being accepted into the UO - and a good shot at achieving her loftier goal of becoming an international concert pianist.

"She needs to grow," he said, "but she has the potential."

DANTAS' RECITALS

Priscilla Dantas has five more recitals scheduled during her monthlong stay. All are open to the public, unless otherwise noted, with donations welcome. Proceeds will go to Students Helping Street Kids International to help fund her education. For information about SHSKI, call Bob Crites at 686-1396.

Today: 7:30 p.m., First Congregational United Church of Christ, 4515 SW Hills Road, Corvallis

Sunday: 3 p.m., Westminster Presbyterian Church, 777 Coburg Road

July 19: 6 p.m., Reustle Vineyard, 960 Cal Henry Road, Roseburg (wine club members only)

July 20: 4 p.m., First United Methodist Church, 1376 Olive St.

July 27: 4 p.m., St. Mary's Catholic Church, 728 SW Ellsworth, Albany
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Title Annotation:Education; The Brazilian 15-year-old is receiving educational support from local donations
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 12, 2008
Words:1334
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