If scientists were mapping the gene for concert violinist, they’d likely want a sample of Leonid Sushansky’s DNA. His mother, Rimma Sushanskaya, is a master violinist and former pupil of the legendary David Oistrakh. She was his first violin teacher when Sushansky was a young boy growing up in then-Leningrad, in the former Soviet Union. Interestingly, some recent research uncovered another violin connection: his great-grandfather, a rabbi in Belorussia, also played the violin.
A child prodigy, who studied at the renowned Juilliard School and with such luminaries as Isaac Stern, Daniel Heifetz and Arnold Steinhardt of the renowned Guarneri Quartet. At just 15, Sushansky was invited by Zubin Mehta to perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in his debut with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.
Now in his 40s – his mother (and mentor) hates when he reveals his age, he joked, because she still wants to be known as a young concert artist – the Arlington resident founded his own chamber ensemble to share the music he loves in a more intimate setting than oversized concert halls. While the National Chamber Ensemble has played in major venues like the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Berlin’s Philharmonie, the Leipzig Gewandhaus in Germany and Zurich’s Tonhalle, to name a few, the concerts at home in Arlington, at the Gunston Center for the Arts, provide audiences with a more intimate setting to experience the music along with little-known tidbits Sushansky shares about the composers and stories behind the music.
In fact, ask him what he does and he might as readily call himself a musical storyteller as a concert-level violinist and musical director. He has compared the sound of the solo violin to that of the human voice.
“My goal [in forming the ensemble], was to create an environment that was welcoming and where musicians, great artists, interact with the public. I tell stories about the music,” he said, admitting that sometimes his concerts serve as a bit of a standup comedy venue: “I like to tell jokes and make people laugh at things related to the theme, the concert or the composers. I share the dirt on the composers –the National Enquirer version.”
Earlier this fall, he programmed an evening of Jewish musical works to open the ensemble’s ’22-’23 season featuring a composition inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof” and works by Jewish composers Ernest Bloch, George Gershwin, John Williams and Roman Ryterband. He has also performed at or collaborated with the Pozez Jewish Community Center, Washington Hebrew Congregation and Temple Rodef Shalom.
Yet growing up in the then-Soviet Union, Sushansky had no Jewish education. He knew he was Jewish, he recalled, because he was called names and bullied in school. And while his parents applied to emigrate, they were denied and became refuseniks – barred from leaving because of their religion. “My family left Soviet Union to also have religious freedom and personal freedom, because in the Soviet Union in the ‘70s and ‘80s there was religion. It was illegal.”
“I think we were refused because my mother was a well-known violinist, and they didn’t want lose her talent and let her go,” he said. When his family finally received permission, which was gained by the political maneuvers of several senators and members of Congress from New Jersey and intervention by then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, the family settled in Fairlawn, N.J. Soon young Sushansky was studying at Juilliard’s Saturday program for talented youngsters. Among his classmates were Gil Shaham, Midori and Sarah Chang – top-level concert violinists today.
In addition to his violin studies, living in the United States enabled Sushansky to celebrate his bar mitzvah, which was not possible in the Soviet Union. He even attended a yeshiva for a year shortly after his arrival. “It certainly gave me contact with my roots, but after a year, because my Hebrew wasn’t so good — I was supposed to be in fourth or fifth grade — they put me in second grade.” He moved on to attend a public school.
Following entering college at 16 and graduating at 20, he said, “I played everywhere in New York that I wanted,” including the famed Carnegie Hall. He was ready to move on.
An opportunity to study with Daniel Heifetz at the University of Maryland College Park brought Sushansky to the Washington, D.C., area and he has been here ever since. “I got a job teaching violin at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. I was 22. The first week I was teaching I was practicing in my studio and a student knocked. I opened the door and she asked, ‘When would the teacher was be in.’ I said, ‘Come back in an hour.’”
He loves living in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. region. “I got a bit burned out living in New York,” he shared. “I love that it’s so green down here. And I feel like I have more space to grow.” In his free time, he enjoys attending theater and rollerblading – with protection, he promised.
The National Chamber Ensemble is in its 16th season. “My model for [the ensemble] was the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center,” Sushansky said, “which is a society of internationally acclaimed musicians that you can put in various combinations. So, it’s not the same two, three or four people playing all the time. It’s the artists who are right for a particular program and all of whom I consider colleagues and friends.”
“I know some extraordinary musicians and who are willing to come here,” he noted. “We’re a small arts organization and we don’t have a huge budget, but because of the quality of performances and our mission, many of my colleagues have been happy to come perform with us.”
Sushansky continues to teach, privately and at the Levine School of Music, and since 2007 he has helmed the NCE Young Artists Competition, which recognizes talented young musicians with performance and other opportunities through an adjudicated panel of distinguished musicians.
“I have really enjoyed making music and one of the greatest gifts that I had in my own life through my mom and mentors were the performing opportunities and experience they gave me as a child,” he said. My goal with the Young Artist Competition and with opportunities that we give to young performers is to do the same — to mentor and feature the next generation.”