By Jim Carnett
(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 36th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)
It was September of 1995 and Alan Remington was predicting big things for Sarkis Baltaian, a piano student at Orange Coast College during the 1994-95 academic year.
Remington, an OCC music professor at the time and director of the college’s philharmonic orchestra, was high on Baltaian. Very high.
“This young man is absolutely phenomenal,” Remington told me in ’95. At that time the Bulgarian-born musician was 19 years old. “He’s going to be a world-class pianist in five to 10 years. It’s not of matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”
Remington proved to be a prophet.
Today, at the age of 31, Baltaian has emerged as one of the most promising young pianists of his generation. He has gained an international reputation as a concert pianist, soloist, chamber musician and recording artist.
Last spring Sarkis performed the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Nimbus Ensemble. Last summer he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with the Beverly Hills Symphony. Last month he was featured in the Dilijan Chamber Series at Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He’s on his way!
Praised by critics for his “beautiful tone and ability to project even the most delicate pianissimos,” Sarkis has been compared to George Gershwin and Oscar Levant for his performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F. The former OCC student made his Carnegie Hall Debut in 1999, and has performed extensively throughout the United States, Australia, Germany, Austria, Holland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. He’s appeared as a soloist with many orchestras.
Sarkis has recorded two albums with internationally acclaimed violinist, Linda Wang.
As an 18-year-old Orange Coast College student in 1994, Baltaian was not unaware of his prodigious talent. Even then he aspired to international fame.
“My goal in life is to become a world-class concert pianist,” the spirited young musician told me during an interview in my office. He made that statement without pretense or the slightest trace of self-satisfaction. “I want to concertize everywhere in the world, and I’d like to be featured on my own recordings.
“It’s a lofty goal to pursue, but I feel it’s achievable. There are a lot of great musicians in the world who haven’t ‘made’ it. Why? It takes a certain temperament. It also takes tremendous desire – and luck – to get there. I’m a driven person. I’m going to work as hard as it takes to make it. I believe in myself.”
He wasn’t being boorish or a braggart. Baltaian was a confident and committed Orange Coast College student. He had a good fix on where his future was headed, and he was excited and motivated. What the teenager had going for him most of all – his friends and OCC teachers agreed – was his love for music.
“Music comes from my soul,” he told me. “I love it. It is more than a profession to me. As Isaac Stern once said, ‘Music is a way of life.’ It’s my way of life.”
While he studied at Coast – and later when he was at USC – members of his family were residing in Bulgaria and served as his inspiration.
“My parents are proud of me,” he told me during our interview. “I love living here in America, but I miss them very much. The thought of them working hard in Bulgaria keeps me motivated. They believe in me, and have sacrificed a lot for me. I want to do this for them.”
After a year at Orange Coast College, Sarkis transferred to USC’s Thornton School of Music in the spring of 1995. He studied under renowned piano teacher, John Perry. Perry became his principal teacher.
A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, and recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, Perry studied for four years in Europe under Polish concert artist, Wladyslav Kedra, and Italian conductor and pianist, Carlo Zecchi. Perry’s students have been prize winners in most major competitions throughout the world.
“Perry is the crème de la crème as far as teachers go,” Baltaian’s former OCC piano professor, Dr. Edith Smith, told me in 1995. “Sarkis couldn’t be in better hands at this stage of his musical career.”
Sarkis also worked with Gyorgy Sandor, Menahem Pressler and Dmitri Bashkirov.
Smith had every confidence that Baltaian would make it big-time on the music scene.
“I have no doubt that he’s going to be an A-1 artist,” she predicted in ‘95. “He’s a flaming angel, and an incredible personality. Even at his young age he presents a commanding presence on stage.”
Of Armenian descent, Baltaian was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria in 1976. His grandparents immigrated to Bulgaria from Armenia – the smallest of the former Soviet republics. Located in the southern Caucasus, Armenia is bounded by Georgia on the north, Azerbaijan on the east, Iran on the south, and Turkey on the west. Both of his parents were born in Bulgaria.
“I am pure Armenian,” he told me with pride.
Baltaian hails from musical stock. His grandfather was a composer and conductor, and his father a violin professor at a music academy in Bulgaria. His mother was a music teacher.
His sister, Aroussiak Baltaian – five years his senior – is a violinist who earned her bachelor of music degree at the University of Central Arkansas and completed a graduate degree at Guilt Hall School in London. She studied under respected violin teacher, Efrah Nieman. Sarkis and his sister appeared together at the 1999 Los Angeles Philharmonic International Gala, and also at the 2000 World Piano Pedagogy Convention in Las Vegas.
Sarkis took up piano at the age of four. He began his formal education at the Plovdiv School of Music at five.
“I had no choice, the piano was to be my instrument,” he said with a laugh. “My parents selected it for me because they didn’t want another violinist in the house.”
He took to the world’s most beloved instrument like a duck to water.
“I loved it from the beginning,” he said. “I know this may sound strange, but all I wanted to do as a child was to practice. I didn’t want to go outside and play with other children; I wanted only to play the piano. My parents never had to force me to practice. I took the initiative myself.”
One might presume that he grew up to be shy and introverted. That presumption would be absolutely false!
“He’s one of the most outgoing and flamboyant people I know,” Dr. Edith Smith told me. “He loves being around people. It recharges his batteries. He’s extremely extroverted.”
“You should see the phone bill at my USC apartment,” he told me in the fall of 1995 after he became a Trojan. “I’m taking 18 units this semester, and I practice the piano four or five hours per day, but I still manage to spend a couple of hours on the phone each day talking with my friends. I have friends all over the world, so I run up quite a bill.”
At the age of 10, Sarkis won first prize in a national competition in Bulgaria and captured second prize at an international piano competition held in the Czech Republic. He also performed in Vienna.
After turning 13, Baltaian soloed many times with Bulgarian symphony orchestras.
“I think I have played with every major orchestra in Bulgaria,” he told me. “I’ve also appeared on television and radio, and have done a number of recordings.”
In 1992, he performed a Gershwin program that was broadcast by Bulgarian National Television. The U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria attended the concert. A year later he performed with four Bulgarian symphony orchestras in commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Tchaikovsky.
But, with the demise of communism in his native land, things changed. Musicians and artists no longer enjoyed favored-class status.
“The communist government subsidized music in Bulgaria for many, many years,” Baltaian told me in ‘95. “I rejoice over the fact that Bulgaria is no longer a communist nation, but it’s sad to see what has happened to musicians there. They have all gone. They’re scattered throughout the world. The country is poor. There are no concerts anymore, and musicians have great difficulty just getting enough to eat.”
In 1993 Baltaian was given a full scholarship to attend the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, located in the mountains of Southern California. He submitted an audition tape and was selected on the basis of that taped performance.
“I didn’t want to stay in Bulgaria, I wanted to come to the United States to study, that was my dream,” he said. “The U.S. is the best place in the world for musicians to study, better even than Europe. The best teachers and schools are here.”
The Idyllwild School of Music is a high school academy for gifted musicians. It enjoys an international reputation.
Baltaian arrived in the U.S. in October of 1993 unable to speak a word of English. Within a matter of months he was able to speak the language fluently. In 1995, when I conducted my interview with him, he spoke with a decided accent – to be sure – but he demonstrated an extensive vocabulary and was able to converse easily with the most sophisticated speakers of the language.
Though he received a three-year scholarship to attend the mountain-based music academy, Baltaian dropped out after the first year.
“I was already 18 and really didn’t want to remain in high school for another two years,” he said. “I also felt isolated in Idyllwild. I wanted to move to Orange County and meet people.”
Jeffrey Palmer, a resident of Newport Beach and a lover of music, became his sponsor. Baltaian moved into the Palmer family residence and began taking classes at OCC in the fall of 1994.
At that time another sponsor, Joel Kabokov of the Yamaha Corp., also took an interest in Baltaian.
“Mr. Kabokov is a musician and Yamaha’s institutional development manager. He recognized my talent and provided me with pianos to play. I had a piano to use while I lived in Newport Beach, and he also saw to it that I had pianos whenever I performed recitals. He was very supportive of me.”
Baltaian spent one academic year, 1994-95, at Orange Coast College. Following his transfer to USC, he characterized his OCC experience as “exceptional.”
“I spent a wonderful year at Orange Coast,” he reflected. “My music teachers were outstanding. They took an interest in me and became my friends as well as my teachers.”
He developed a particularly close relationship with Edith Smith, a first-rate pianist and organist, and one of the finest community college music professors in the nation.
“She’s a great teacher,” Baltaian told me. “Dr. Smith is also a fine musician. She worked hard with me and I learned a lot. I’m very grateful for all that she has done for me. She is the one who encouraged me to attend USC.”
Smith, who holds music degrees from Boston University, Mills College and Stanford, joined OCC’s music faculty in 1971. She retired in 1998, three years after Sarkis transferred to USC. Smith felt strongly that Baltaian would receive the best education at the University of Southern California under Perry’s discerning eye.
“USC and John Perry are ideal for Sarkis,” she told me in ‘95.
In addition to his piano courses, Baltaian also took OCC classes in music theory and harmony and sight singing. He fulfilled general education requirements by taking English, speech and other courses. He also spent considerable time on campus practicing his keyboard skills.
“Faculty members were very patient with me. They let me spend hours in the practice rooms. They accommodated my needs. OCC prepared me for USC. I learned to adjust to the American system of higher education while at Coast.”
Sarkis offered a public recital as an OCC student in February of 1995. It was a triumph. An extraordinary performance, he played works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Gershwin and Khatchatourian. He returned to the campus in 2001, after earning his B.M. and M.M. degrees at USC, to present a second recital. OCC’s recital hall was packed. I was privileged to be one of those in attendance.
“I feel I owe many people at Orange Coast College for their kindness,” he said of his return to campus. He came back after being named the outstanding graduate student in USC’s Keyboard Department. “This is one way I can show my appreciation.”
Baltaian, who is presently a candidate for a doctorate in musical arts at the Thornton School of Music, won several scholarships as an Orange Coast student.
“I think he won almost every scholarship offered by the Music Department last year,” Edith Smith told me in the fall of ‘95. “He was certainly deserving.”
While at Coast, Baltaian also studied with highly respected teacher, Nina Scholnik, a professor in the music department at the University of California, Irvine.
Later, at USC, Sarkis spent four to five hours each day – usually afternoons and early evenings – playing in the school’s practice rooms. He did all of his studying late at night.
In 1999 Baltaian won the USC Piano Concerto Competition, and performed with the USC Thornton Symphony. He was also the grand prizewinner of the Armenian Allied Arts Association Competition, the “Young Piano Virtuosi” International Competition in the Czech Republic, and the “Svetoslav Obretenov” National Competition in Bulgaria. He was a guest artist at the 2002 and 2005 Klaviersommer Festival in Bad Bertrich, Germany, and also performed at the Aspen International Music Festival, the Holland Music Sessions and the Plovdiv International Chamber Music Festival.
The young musician has developed an extensive piano repertoire over the years. He regularly plays works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Gershwin and Khatchatourian.
“I like all composers and a wide variety of music,” he told me. “I like to perform many different styles. It’s important to be familiar with different composers, styles and musical periods.”
Today, in addition to performing throughout the world, Sarkis is a frequent adjudicator at music festivals. He’s a lecturer in keyboard at California State University at Los Angeles, and is a member of the piano faculty for the Pan Pacific Music Festival in Sydney, Australia.
For four years, he was an assistant lecturer and teaching assistant to professor John Perry at USC. He also runs a private studio of advanced students in Los Angeles.
Remember that name! Put it at the top of your “Keeping-Tabs-On” list. He’s a “Post Coastie” whose star will continue to rise for decades to come.