Friday, September 9, 2016

Artist's Profile: Dickran Atamian, aka Jack Price, or vice versa.


There was a time in my life when I studied the piano. It was a only for a short period of time, and this may be the only photograph ever taken of me playing.

(That's my sister, Ellen, in the background). This was 1976. I was eleven years old and I was not very good. I had already been studying the violin at the University of Texas String Project for four years and I knew how to read music. I didn't think the piano would be as hard as it turned out to be! My parents arranged for me to take piano lessons. My teacher was a young man named Dickran Atamian who was then a student at the University of Texas. Mr. Atamian had just won the prestigious Walter M. Naumburg Piano competition in New York City and was about to embark on a career as a world famous concert pianist. I was with him for a few months before he went off to conquer the classical music world.
Fast forward forty years. I am still a violinist, but alas, my piano studies did not continue for very long. The other day I was listening to a recording of Chopin Ballades performed by Abbey Simon.

I was reading the liner notes on the back (remember liner notes???) Mr. Simon won the Walter M. Naumburg competition in 1940....Naumburg....Naumburg...that meant something to me...but what was it???? Later that same day, I kid you not, while looking through some old photographs, I found the picture above of me playing the piano. Naumburg....piano....piano lessons....Dickran Atamian! It all came together. I had studied with a world renowned pianist, ever so briefly, but none-the-less, a big brush with greatness that had escaped my memory.
So I did some research about Dickran Atamian. He was only 19 when he won the Naumburg Prize. He did indeed have a wonderful career...performances with all the great orchestras in the world, critically acclaimed recordings, including a groundbreaking recording of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring transcribed by Sam Raphling. Recitals at Carnegie Hall. You name it. I wanted to re-connect with him after all these years to see if he even remembered me. And to see if he still loved classical music.
I did some research and learned that Dickran Atamian is alive and well, and that he also goes by the name Jack Price. Huh? What's up with that? Well, that is part of an amazing story. A story of one man with two careers and two identities. Jack Price of Price Rubin & Partners Artist Management and Mr Dickran Atamian, world renowned concert pianist. Mr. Price very graciously responded to my e-mail, and he said he did remember me. More importantly, this very busy man gave me an hour of his time to catch up on old times and share some of his thoughts and reflections about a wide range of topics.

Tim Hazlett        The other day, I was listening to an album of Chopin Ballades performed by Abbey Simon. While reading the liner notes, I saw that he won the Naumburg Prize in 1940. That instantly reminded me of you.

Jack Price           Yeah, he won the Naumburg too. (1940) As a matter of fact, he was on the jury when I won. (1975)

TH         Wow, cool. So who are you?? (laughing)

JP           I have a lot of names….that’s an interesting story. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately…so your piece may get some steam because of all the different ones I’m doing. I have a publicist called the NALA, it’s in LA actually, and they promote all of our stuff, and they started out with my story. In March they did a story on my ten years in retirement as a pianist, and 32 years in management. I did it for 22 years without anyone knowing…they didn’t know I was Jack Price.

TH          That schizophrenic story on your website was amazing.

JP            I left Columbia Artists and all the big guys...Harold Shaw, Bill Judd and ICM…the four biggest at that time and probably ever. The only other manager you could have had would have been Sol Hurok, and Shaw at ICM was an outgrowth of Hurok because Hurok left in like ’72. The Hurok agency divided between Shaw Attractions and International Creative Management (ICM). So that would have been the only other management that I hadn’t been with. So I decided they’re not doing it right…they don’t know what they’re doing with a bunch of people who are not branded, so I decided to manage myself. And that’s when things really worked. The year I won the Naumburg (1975) everybody was “Oh yeah you’re going to be with Shelly Gold and these people”…but they don’t do the work…unless you’ve got millions of dollars to hand them. If you’re going to give them five million dollars, they’ll work for you. Anybody will work for you if you pay them five million dollars.

TH           I was doing some research awhile back and saw several ads for Sol Hurok’s company, and he in fact managed Isaac Stern…one of the all-time great violinists….and now his son is conductor of the KC Symphony.

JP            Michael Stern used to live in Ann Arbor when I was artist in residence at the University of Michigan from ’91 to ’96. I taught there, not as a faculty member, but as an artist in residence. It was a special position…it was so special that after I left they discontinued the program. They’d had enough of artists and artistic mentalities like mine, who are very demanding and opinionated and who don’t really relinquish their opinions…they stick to them. But I’m not really like most artists. I have a more entrepreneurial nature than they do. And I’m much more organized and much more realistic, and I’m less of a dreamer.

TH           You made a great point about how very few people ever remember the names of artists who win major prizes like the Naumburg.

JP            They remembered mine because in those days; A) the Naumburg meant something and B) there weren’t nearly as many competitions as have proliferated over the last 30 years. Now there’s one in every corner. Every medium…dance and music…there are too many of them, and there are too many winners, so nobody knows their names. Nobody cares. All they care about are their pool chemicals and lawn chemicals. They care more about what chemical they’re going to put on their lawn than whether Yo-Yo Ma is playing with the symphony this weekend. Nobody cares. Even with a big name like him, despite that fact that calls obviously come in for him, he still has to do a fair amount of selling. Whereas someone of his stature in another field wouldn’t have to do anything.

TH           I was not sure what to call you...Jack Price or Dickran Atamian?

JP            You can use the names now interchangeably because everybody knows my identity now. (Dickran Atamian and Jack Price) Six years ago we let the cat out of the bag about who Jack Price really was. But I didn’t let the cat out in ’06 because I wasn’t ready to let people know that Dickran Atamian was Jack Price. But it turned out that we got way better results with the management when people knew that I was Atamian because they know Atamian. So the branding of Atamian helped the branding of this new Jack Price character which, of course, I got from a real Jack Price which you probably read about on the website.

TH           I did, yes…it is fascinating.

JP            Jack’s the one who gave me the persona and the business. He gave me the name to use as a business and he gave me the name for DBA as Jack Price. I didn’t get the dividend. I didn’t get the company. He retired and of course he kept all his money. And he did not finance me. But I built it from nothing. He just gave me the name.

TH           And all because you both liked to eat steak!

JP            Yeah right…he heard me play the Khachaturian Concerto in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. It’s a pretty good orchestra and it was a big success. And he comes out of the audience…this big guy…telling jokes all night. And he took me out to dinner and the next thing you know he’s asking “what’s Columbia Artists doing for you?” and I go “well, they get me big dates. I’m with Leontyne Price’s manager”, which you know, Leontyne was a big name at that time. And Leontyne Price was with Nellie Walter, who was the Vice President of Columbia Artists Management Inc., who was my manager. So, I got dates, you know, through Price and name association. Not enough to live on….I really didn’t make a living until about 1994, from playing the piano. It took many years from the time you are talking (1975). It took about nineteen years to really start get going.

TH           Did you continue teaching through that period? Was that part of your income?

JP            No. I was lucky to play dates and have sponsors…fairly well known sponsors that had a lot of money that paid my rent. I had one guy who didn’t even tell me his identity who paid my rent in New York for a while. I had another sponsor…this is in the days when you studied with me…his name was Dr. Boyd who was a gynecologist in Augusta, GA who sponsored the Boyd Competition. I won the first prize in ’73 with the Brahms second concerto and then he sponsored me to other competitions. It was his airfare that got me to New York when I won the Naumburg. I paid him back after I won. If it wasn’t for Boyd sponsoring me in these formative years, I would have probably never have gone to the Naumburg. Sponsors are very important to artists. If they don’t have them it’s difficult.

TH           After a career as a concert pianist and a recording artist and now in your career as an artist management company entrepreneur…do you still enjoy listening to music?

JP            Oh yeah. The music is all I enjoy. I do enjoy making deals…I’m a deal maker…I just took on a major partner, James Dietsch, who has as much the same story as I have had. We are about the only two in the entire business who ever went that route where we had major AA careers. His was at the Met, La Scala, and Covent Garden. He was a major baritone, and he played with all the major conductors. You can read about  him on the website. And then he turned into management full steam because of four or five strokes that he had. That didn’t happen to me…I just got sick and tired of the business in 2006. I just couldn’t quit cold turkey, but I could not stand walking in front of another audience. I loved playing, and I love the music, but I don’t like performing every other night, or whatever it was. And I don’t like traveling at all. After 9/11…five years later I quit. I knew 9/11 would have an effect on people’s daily life, but I didn’t know it would affect my entire life. It made my life miserable. I hate airports and I hate being searched…taking my belt and shoes off…I just said forget it. And you can say “Oh, you must not love the music very much…you must not love your art.” Well, that’s not true. I loved it. But I’m a person who’s not into hassles. I don’t know if you remember that from when I taught you…I was very young then…but I don’t like hassles and I don’t like to be inconvenienced. I know it’s a major flaw, and I admit it readily. So with those two problems you can see why I quit. I just don’t like it. That’s all I can say about it.

TH           I’m a big baseball fan….

JP            Yeah, me too.

TH           I thought so because you referenced Dave Kingman in one of your video segments.

JP            Dizzy Dean too…I talked about Dizzy. Paul Dean, his brother, rented from us…my father owned some apartments in Phoenix. Dizzy became a good friend and sponsored my third grade little league baseball team. He taught me a lot about pitching, playing second base, hitting and fielding. And about life.

TH           Baseball is a metaphor for life in many ways.

JP            It is!

TH           Who is your favorite team?

JP            My favorite team has always been St. Louis. My father played on their farm team…he played minor league ball, and so he met Dizzy of course. The Cardinals have just been part of my family. I loved what Whitey Herzog brought to them in the ‘80s. That personifies what I consider a great team. Teams now just buy the players they need to win the pennant. It’s just a money machine. It’s like Moneyball.

TH           So, unlike many professional athletes who go through withdraw when their playing careers end, you didn’t experience that when you stopped playing concerts?

JP            No, I didn’t have any withdrawal because I was so fed up. I made my last recording with Grzegorz Nowak and the Poznan Philharmonic…the Brahms First Piano Concerto which was phenomenal…it’s like my last will and testament. When I played the final note of that concerto, I knew it was the greatest thing I had done. I love my recordings, but that last one is very special and it’s my favorite piece in the world. It’s a phenomenal of the great orchestras…and the conductor is my favorite conductor. It’s my last installment if you will, and I’m just fine with it. I play occasionally at church, or I’ll fill in on the organ. I am now thinking about accompanying a singer for her lieder concerts…I’m not going to divulge her name or when it might be, but she has inspired me to come back a little bit to the piano, but only to accompany. We might do some Chopin, Schumann and Liszt songs, but that’s on a very low level from playing major concertos. I’m not letting anyone publicize it because I have the management to deal with and I have no intention of competing with my artists.

TH           Do you ever just sit down and practice…or play?

JP            No. not at all. I never practice. Not one second of any day. I don’t want to practice anymore, and it’s in the nervous system anyway. I’ll put it this way…if some guy comes up to me and says “I’ll give you ten million dollars seed money to build your career and go beyond where you had it” I would refuse it. That’s how much I hated it. (laughs)….That’s going to be the title of your article…Atamian Really Hates Concertizing. (laughs)

TH           I’m happy to hear that you still love music even though you hate concertizing! I know more than a few people who make a living in music who don’t really like it anymore.

JP            Here are a few other points about that. Number one; there are so many bad pianos on the road. Yeah, once in a while I’d get a great one, but even at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, the pianos are just in bad shape. Technicians have no idea…they couldn’t tune “Come to Jesus” in whole notes if they wanted to. They just don’t know what I know. And the only person who agrees with me is Alfred Brendel. He does his own “inside the piano” work. He does his own regulating…he regulates the action and the hammers before each concert and he’s up until four in the morning the night before a concert fixing the piano. I’m not going to do that…you couldn’t pay me enough to do that.

TH           I love Brendel.

JP            Here’s a great Brendel story. Alfred’s a great guy. I played Brahms Second for him once when I was studying with John Perry there at UT when you were there. It was the funniest thing….I wrote the word “fucker” over a chord because I never could get it. And Brendel said “what is this word “fucker”. A friend of mine who was accompanying me was laughing so hard he fell off the bench. Second; the travel used to be great. I loved it at first…the hotels and flying…they were great. But now I can’t stand airports anymore. It was always the prelude to playing the concert…you’d go “Ah yes, I’m on the way to conquer Kansas City” for example.  I played there a lot by-the-way. Incidentally, Kansas City was the last place I played before I won the Naumburg.
Then you’ve got the conductors. Need I say more? Conductors….I either love them or hate them. They’re not all going to be like Nowak or Mazel. They’re not all like that. Most are not at that level. And then there are the people that run the orchestras and series’. It just got so depressing. Like, getting off the plane and being greeted by some Executive Director that had no intention of ever attending the concert. They don’t even show up to their own concerts! You talk about apathy…you’ve got apathy written all over the heart of this industry. And the music is so great, right? You wonder “what the heck are they doing in it if they hate it!?!”
And lastly, my kids were young and I wanted to devote a lot of time to them. ’06 just seemed like a good year to retire.
I didn’t burn out on playing; I burned out on the atmosphere of extra-musical things. Anything that wasn’t musical turned me off. Chatter back stage, dingy dressing rooms….you go in the corner of a concert hall and what do you see? Nothing but dust and dirt. It was depressing just to even practice in the Hall before a concert. You are alone most of the time…in the hotel, in the Hall….you’re alone. That doesn’t mean I hate the music. I hate everything else.

TH           Do you still listen to classical music?

JP            Oh yeah. I play it in my car all the time. I listen to my artists; I listen to artists that I like. I listen to myself…I have a lot of archival recordings….500 or more archival recordings. My archives are going to be taken by the University of Tulsa’s Lorton Center. All my reviews, clippings, interviews, programs …along with all of my recordings…live and studio…will be put in a climate controlled room so that students…anybody worldwide…can come check them out if they want.

TH           How did you end up in Tulsa?

JP            My kids moved here with their mom when we divorced, and I followed. I wouldn’t think of not being near my children.

TH           Here’s a small world story. I remember as a kid back in Austin, about the same time period I was studying with you, my Dad would always take me to Sound Warehouse to look at records. One afternoon we went there for an in-store performance by a smoking hot classical guitarist named Liona Boyd. She was so kind..I got to meet her.

JP            Oh yes, Liona is with us. Oh man was she hot. She still is! Liona is great. We just signed her a few months ago. Interesting fact about her…she holds the distinction of appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at least six times. There is no classical artist that can boast of that…nobody. She’s a very sweet person.

TH           Who are your top 3 composers?

JP            Brahms is first….by virtue of the First Piano Concerto. I would say it embodies everything I love about this art. It’s the most complete piece for me. What more can you say when it has everything? Second place would have to go to Schubert, who used to occupy the first position, but no longer does. And then third would have to be Mozart. I’d love to put Beethoven and Schumann there, but they don’t quite make it. So Schumann fourth and Beethoven fifth. And then Bach would have to be sixth. And beyond that would have to be Chopin, Liszt, and the rest of the crew…Tchaikovsky…I like Tchaikovsky a lot. I don’t like Rachmaninoff as much although people always loved the way I played it. But to me, neo-romanticism is just not as original. But anyway...there you go. Brahms is number one.

TH           Random question…which version of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations do you prefer…the 1955 or 1981?

JP            Probably the early version, but you’re not talking to a Gould fan, that’s for sure. Here’s what I think about Gould; is he putting us on? Or is that the way he really plays? That’s what I think when I think of Gould. I just really don’t get it. His recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Bach)…I mean come on! It’s so distorted rhythmically. He can’t be hearing the harmonies that way because the harmonies would never dictate that kind of policy. I just don’t hear it that way. But you know, he’s different. But I think he’s different for different sake. I don’t think its honest playing. I really think he’s putting us on. But, having said that, he plays the piano in an exemplary way….his trills are like a McCulloch chainsaw. Who can play them that loud, and evenly, and consistently for that long? (laughs). The question is, do you really care or want to? But I don’t like his sound and or what he has to say. But he has the most even fingers I’ve probably ever heard in my life. He had an amazing technical prowess. But let me tell you who my favorite pianist is. Without a doubt it’s Emil Gilels. He’s my favorite pianist. His playing is unbelievable and he’s always been my favorite. Even with Bolet (Jorge Bolet) and Arrau (Claudio Arrau) being my teachers…they don’t come close. He takes chances like nobody. This guy was a maniac at the piano. Not only that, but beauty of sound, technical perfection when it was perfect…yes he missed notes when he really took a lot of chances…but I’d take his chances any day over Gould’s perfection. He had an unbelievable arsenal of fingers, but he just believed in music and he believed in pulling off musical ideas that seemed impossible. I admire that. I think that’s what it’s all about…taking chances. In my opinion, that’s what life is all about….taking chances.

TH           Was there a special moment in your childhood when you first connected to classical music?

JP            My first might not call it classical, but it was….I was at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix. The promoter in Phoenix in my day was Buster Bonoff. Bonoff was the local impresario. He did not do a lot of classical, but he brought Liberace one night. I was very young, and opening for Liberace was Marni Nixon, the great soprano who sang all the songs in My Fair Lady…she was in the Sound of Music the movie. Marni is one of the greatest talents. At Oberlin, when I went there, she gave a whole recital of 20th century contemporary composers….off the wall contemporary composers, and her technique is just phenomenal. She’s one of the greats. Marni Nixon was my first inspiration and it was the antithesis of the Liberace experience. Liberace came off stage, my father took me back because he knew Bonoff, and I got introduced. And he said “Ah, you’re a pianist…Good Luck!” And he wrote me this stupid Liberace signature. But what impressed me was the dichotomy of style between this humble, fabulous Marni Nixon, and this overblown beast called Liberace. Liberace was not encouraging. He didn’t know what kind of a talent I was. He had no idea who was coming backstage, and I don’t think you treat people like that. I’ve made it a point since I met Liberace and Marni Nixon that first time to always treat a fan or a person coming backstage with dignity, with a humble thankfulness that they showed up to hear you play. That right there is something…that they came to hear you man! They could have done anything that night. Anything! I think that Liberace embodies the opposite of what I’d like to be remembered as….a grateful artist who liked the fact that people came to hear him and appreciated it. That part of the industry I simply miss the most…the audience and the orchestras. I loved the orchestras I played with. I may not have gotten along with the conductors all the time, but I’ll tell you, I don’t think there’s one orchestra I didn’t love. Because they’re the players man. They’re the ones doing the work.

TH           I’ll just put a plug in for Kansas City if you haven’t been here in a while.

JP            It’s a fantastic orchestra, yeah. Kansas City is a fabulous town. I played a recital at Rockhurst University very shortly after I won the Naumburg. I like Kansas City very much. I also gave a masterclass at the conservatory once. Do you remember Stevenson’s Apple Farm? That was my favorite restaurant. John Perry took me there for the first time in 1972 and I went back many times until it closed.

TH           Last big question…do you drink coffee?

JP            Yeah, I love coffee!

TH           Me too, so when you come to KC, we can get together at one of the many great coffee shops we have here. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It was very enjoyable.

JP            My pleasure. I enjoyed it too.

Here is the link to the Price Rubin & Partners Artist Management website where you can read more about the history of this organization and see the many great artists on their roster:

And here is a link to Dickran Atamian's website:

Here is Mr. Atamian's recording the First Movement of Brahms" First Piano Concerto he referenced in our interview.

Here is a video of Mr. Atamian playing Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring:

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