A CROWDED banquet room on the 19th floor of the American Express Company is stop No. 2 on Alexei Sultanov's hectic schedule. Camera strobes flash as the young pianist poses with dignitaries and musicians at a press luncheon. Public relations managers hover like worried mothers.
It's going to be a long day. The 20-year-old from the Soviet Union has already rehearsed in Carnegie Hall in the morning, gearing up for his debut concert there (which will take place tomorrow evening). After the luncheon, he will do a radio interview and then take a cab to the airport for a flight to Los Angeles and an appearance on Johnny Carson's ``Tonight Show.''
This reporter will accompany him as far as the airport - to talk about, and get a firsthand taste of, the life of an international concert artist.
Since capturing the gold medal at the Eighth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition last summer, Mr. Sultanov has been swept up in a whirlwind of concerts, receptions, and talk shows. Virtually overnight, he has gone from ambitious Moscow State Conservatory student to international celebrity.
``Excuse me, but could we take a photo of you with Leonard Slatkin?,'' asks a press person to Sultanov, who tells me later he had never heard of Slatkin, conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony.
The 1989 Van Cliburn competition drew 240 applicants worldwide. Sultanov was the youngest of 38 pianists who competed in Ft. Worth, Texas.
Winning the Cliburn - or any other major piano competition - bestows a ``seal of approval'' upon pianists battling for fame and fortune in an increasingly star-oriented field. Getting a prize has become ``the only practical means to opening a door to management, recordings, and presenters of major series,'' commented pianist Misha Dichter, reached later by phone.
Among top pianists today, both young and veteran, ``nine out of 10 got their big breaks because of competitions,'' said Jos'e Feghali, in a phone interview. Mr. Feghali, the Brazilian-born winner of the previous Van Cliburn competition in 1985, added, ``What other way would I have had to show my work to American audiences and ... managers?''
But besides instant prominence, the Van Cliburn also brings two years of nonstop concertizing and media exposure, which can leave a pianist reeling.
``It was a lot of pressure,'' remembered Feghali, who at age 24 went from 30 concerts a year to 90 after the competition, all arranged by the Van Cliburn Foundation. ``The hardest things to cope with are not playing the music, but the traveling, the loneliness, the hotels, the jet lag.''
As the lunch is about to be served, Sultanov quietly sips a Coke at his table. ``The piano looks very small,'' he tells me, gazing over at the Steinway he will play during the luncheon. The event is in honor of the American Soviet Youth Orchestra, a group Sultanov is scheduled to perform with later this year. He doesn't know when.
A wire-service reporter holds a tape recorder three inches from his lips. ``How many hours a day do you practice?'' ``Do you have any girl friends?'' Sultanov responds with a few words and orders another Coke.
The pianist is an island of calm. The only time he sweats is when he is bent over the Steinway's keyboard - perspiration cascades down his face. He attributes his lack of nerves in part to having a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art. ``It helps you concentrate,'' he says.
After dashing off Chopin and Liszt at the luncheon, Sultanov sprints, garment bag over one shoulder, to a waiting taxi. As we head off to the radio studio, he tells me the excitement of traveling has worn off. ``I am playing a bit too many concerts. It's dangerous to play so many - you lose your fresh spirit.
``I knew no one at that lunch,'' he confesses, except one man, the director of the conservatory in Moscow. Sultanov was surprised to see him. ``He's an informant for the KGB.''
The conservatory, he says, is not thrilled he won the Van Cliburn. Officials there did not want him to compete. ``They tried to give me bad marks ... but it was too late - I had already made the preliminary round,'' says Sultanov, whose wispy mustache adds a touch of sophistication to a smooth, boyish face. Recognition there, he says wryly, is a matter of having ``important connections.''
After an interview at station WNCN, we hop into another cab, this one bound for the airport.
``I had never heard of Johnny Carson or David Letterman when I was on their shows last year. And I knew only about six or seven words of English,'' Sultanov remarks. Since then, he has learned English ``just from traveling around'' the country.
Mozart's music, he says, makes him think of a great flood that has wiped out a huge civilization. ``One sunny beautiful day, a young man goes fishing on this sea and is very happy. But an old man in a boat will look down into the water and see the dead city. So Mozart for me is very deep and tragic, and at the same time, very light and sunny.''
While Carnegie is the most important of the 70 or so concerts he will have given so far since the competition, it is not the be-all and end-all.
A competition prize ``guarantees only three years'' of steady engagements, noted Mr. Dichter, a concert artist who has been in the international limelight for three decades. After that, one has to go on his own steam. ``The danger is: There's a bored public out there saying, `Who's the latest star?'''
At age 20, Dichter won the Silver Medal in the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition. But rather than pursuing a grueling concert schedule, he limited his appearances so that he could continue school and learn new repertoire.
``One's growth as a person and as a musician cannot be subservient to the schedule,'' insisted Feghali. One must ``be very aware not to run oneself down.''
Sultanov says he intends to cut back soon. ``You have to take time to learn new repertoire. Still, you can't take too much time, or the people will forget you.''