Sudden fame often brings as many headaches as headlines. Look at Rocky Balboa. Or Nathaniel Rosen.

Winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1978 proved "the single most important event in my life," says Rosen. One day he was principal cellist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the next an International Celebrity.

But, he now says, that triumph had its drawbacks. Unlike Rocky after his entrance into the limelight, the cellist had no sequels waiting in the wings.

"The Tchaikovsky was tough to top," admits Rosen, a Southern California native.

"I mean, what do you do then, except play your cello?" His broad smile indicates that Rosen, 37, is not complaining.

For the busy cellist, who appears in concert with the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra on Saturday at UCLA, playing the cello has sufficed since his Moscow triumph.

His touring schedule for this season, for instance, includes a return to the Soviet Union--notable not only for Rosen personally, but for the impending rebirth of U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange. The three-week engagement in March includes concerts in Moscow, Leningrad, Riga and Kiev.

All very exciting, but, the cellist notes, "I've had a performing relationship with the U.S.S.R. for 20 years," a reference to occasional visits that began with the third Tchaikovsky Competition. At that event in 1966--his last big competition for nearly a decade--he wound up a finalist.

The intervening years proved critical in Rosen's musical maturation, he says.

"I was ready for a lot of concerts (the fruits of winning) when I went back to Moscow in '78. I hadn't been entering every competition in my early 20s, so I was not the typical young contestant." In fact, at age 30 he was the oldest.

What he had been doing was gaining much-needed playing experience in local orchestras (the Pasadena Symphony and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra) and serving as assistant to his mentor, Gregor Piatigorsky, who helped Rosen develop not just technique but character.

"I had a non-career-oriented class with Piatigorsky while at USC," he recalls, "and it left quite an impression with me.

"He was never involved with pushing careers, and he always stressed that a cellist is stronger if he doesn't exclude activities. So I played recitals and chamber concerts, I was a soloist and I played in orchestras, and I taught.

"Even after I won in Moscow, I combined solo dates with other activities. In fact, I still play chamber music." He appeared here last season with violinist Ruggiero Ricci and pianist Leonard Pennario.

Any Los Angeles engagement is a special one for Rosen: "I did a lot of growing up in other places, but I had not one hour of study anywhere else," he remarks with pride.

Suddenly, a smile crosses his face as he raises one expressive eyebrow and confides: "I might be returning to live here. One never knows."

He declines to elaborate.

Recalling his original departure (in 1975), Rosen, who now lives in New York, says matter-of-factly, "I just wanted to go away from home, to escape the ivory tower here."

Part of his current stay in Los Angeles was spent judging at the finals of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Competition in December. The winner of last year's violin competition, Robert Chen ("a young master of the violin," says Rosen), will join the cellist in Brahms' Double Concerto on Saturday, with Lalo Schifrin conducting.

Competitions look considerably different from the other side of the judge's table, says Rosen. As a contestant he had simply played as well as he could. But how can he be sure he's doing his best as a judge?

That's easy, he says: "If someone brings tears to my eyes, then they're the winner."

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