SAN DIEGO — Pianist Dickran Atamian's career began with the kind of attention that any budding virtuoso would covet. At age 19, he was the youngest first-prize winner of the prestigious Naumburg Competition. At his Carnegie Hall debut, he performed to universal acclaim and amazement the world premiere of Sam Raphling's piano reduction of Stravinsky's giant orchestral opus, "The Rite of Spring."
After he recorded the "Rite" for RCA Victor, he toured the Soviet Union with it. Then PBS broadcast his live performance of the knuckle-busting Stravinsky transcription. The program, titled "An Evening with Dickran Atamian," was televised nationally and subsequently voted one of the "Best of PBS" in 1981. But Atamian found that he was his own toughest act to follow.
"Winning the Naumburg and then signing a recording contract with RCA at 22 were just accolades--not the beginning of a career," said Atamian. Although the Stravinsky disc was a success, the other major works he recorded for RCA, including Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," were never released. In the mid-1980s, his best notices came from performances with such unglamorous orchestras as the Omaha Symphony and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.
After several fallow seasons, which Atamian euphemistically described as "four seasons spent building up my repertory," the 31-year-old musician is making a comeback. In October, he played the Khachaturian Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, a concert given to celebrate the visit of Vaskien I, the supreme patriarch and catholicos of all Armenians. It was an appropriate honor for Atamian, a first generation Armenian-American. The following month, he repeated the concerto in San Francisco's Davies Hall with the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra.
Tonight he makes his San Diego debut with the International Orchestra of United States International University playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488, under music director Zoltan Rozsnyai.
The concert opens the International Orchestra's Mozart Plus Series, an ambitious program of nine concerts scheduled through June. Five of the monthly Friday evening concerts will be played at San Diego's College Avenue Baptist Church, and the other four Saturday programs will be given at the East County Performing Arts Center in El Cajon.
"It is especially appropriate that a new orchestra specializing in the works of Mozart presents in its premiere season a series devoted to the genius of Mozart," explained Rozsnyai, who has been building his resident orchestra on the university's Scripps Ranch campus over the last two years. Every concert will have at least one Mozart work, a programming conceit congruent with the size of the 42-piece orchestra.
In an interview from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., Atamian expressed his philosophy of playing Mozart. "I've never liked people playing Mozart as if he were made of lace, and we didn't need the movie 'Amadeus' to learn this (about the composer). All you had to do was read his letters!" said Atamian, referring to the composer's fondness for raw language and scatological humor. "I like playing Mozart in a virile manner. Mozart should not be clangorous, but the piano should not sound as if it had a rug draped over it."
He described the A Major concerto, which is a new addition to his repertory, as a highly dramatic work. "The middle movement in F-sharp Minor is tragic, but the last movement is quite triumphant."
Other soloists in future Mozart Plus concerts include violinist Irina Tseitlin and the noted violin-cello duo Alice and Eleanor Schoenfeld.