Armen Ter-Tatevosian has been a devoted pianist and classical music fan his entire life. But rather than merely playing for fun and then for profit as a professional performer, he decided that launching a competition in honor of his favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, would be a great way to enlighten others and build a bridge toward lasting peace and respect between the US and Russia.

His dream came to fruition when the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition and Festival was held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in March 2002. And while the competition was initially envisioned as a quadrennial event, it proved so popular that a second competition was held just three years later, in 2005, and the third will be held in 2007, marking the final decision to host the contest every two years.

All the attention has also sparked the creation of a special benefit concert to raise funds for the Rachmaninoff Competition. The Rachmaninoff Gold Medalists Benefit Concert will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. The performance will feature both of the competition’s first two gold medalists – Evgeni Mikhailov of Russia and Wen Yu Shen from China – performing some of Rachmaninoff’s greatest works. It will be a powerful and inspiring afternoon for music aficionados.

“This is unique for Los Angeles, because other than the Van Cliburn competition in Fort Worth, Texas, no big city in the US has such an international competition,” said Ter-Tatevosian. “Most big competitions are in Europe’s major cities, but we want to help young people worldwide and identify major new talents.”

Mikhailov was born into a family of musicians in Izhevsk, Russia, and learned the discipline required for greatness from them. He has performed in Berlin with the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester and with the Russian National Orchestra. He’s also toured Austria, Italy, Sweden and South America, in addition to recording two CDs with the Russian record label Melodiya.

Yu Shen, meanwhile, gave his first piano recital at the age of 9 and a year later began playing concerts in Europe, Brazil and Asia. He’s also performed with more than 20 orchestras including the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Brazilian Orchestra.

Together, they represent the artistic epitome of what the Rachmaninoff Competition has to offer.

The competition schedule is two weeks long and features four rounds: a preliminary selection; then, a first round with solo performances of 35 to 45 minutes, after which a jury selects 12 contestants for the second round; the second round is also comprised of solo performances from which no more than six performers are picked for the final round, in which each performs a concerto accompanied by a symphony orchestra.

All told, the competition offers $115,000 in cash prizes, including a grand prize of $30,000 and a gold medal; a $20,000 second prize and $15,000 for third place. The remaining three finalists receive $2,000 each.

“The process of finding competitors is not very difficult because this has one of the most difficult programs of any competition and not too many people are at the level to compete,” said Ter-Tatevosian.

“I started this idea many years ago, when I was teaching international master classes and bringing in famous musicians from overseas, particularly Russia because I’m from there,” Ter-Tatevosian said. “I thought of how to bring together my contacts and knowledge in music to make an interesting project, and I decided to honor Rachmaninoff because he was a Russian composer who became an American citizen a couple months before he died in Beverly Hills. He himself symbolized a strong connection between those nations.”

Another way the competition forges ties between cultures is by seeking volunteers to house the competitors for the time they are in Los Angeles – up to a month if they make the finals.

Ed Foster is a Pasadena resident, a chairman of the committee for the concert and a former professional pianist who performed in the “lounge circuits” of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley for years before getting involved with the Rachmaninoff Competition and opening his home to visiting performers.

“I got involved as a result of an article in the Pasadena Star-News saying the competition needed host families in 2002. I called and immediately offered to help, and it was absolutely marvelous,” Foster said. “I have a music room completely separate so they can practice 24 hours a day if they want and I don’t hear them. Every one of those contestants we’ve housed has been a delight and an experience. They come in here, not living your style, you’re not living theirs, but if you open your heart and mind, you’ll have a lovely experience.”

The Rachmaninoff Gold Medalists Benefit Concert will be at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. Tickets range from $15 to $75 and can be ordered by calling (626) 449-7360.