Leonid Sushansky was born to make music.
The violinist will be a solo guest performer on the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra’s opening night performance of Vivaldi’s “Summer” and “Autumn” from The Four Seasons on Sat., Sept. 26. He is the son of violinist Rimma Sushanskaya, who was already a successful solo violinist in the Soviet Union when Sushansky was born. She was one of the last students of the famous violinist David Oistrakh, a prize-winner, conservatory teacher and internationally acclaimed touring musician.
“My first memory of the violin is imaginary,” Sushansky said. “My mother played before I was born, and when she was pregnant with me, so I had music piped in from the very start. When I was a baby, I had music all around me. When I was a little kid, I used to pick up sticks and imagine I was playing.”
However, violin lessons didn’t come naturally to the mother-son pair right away, and eventually, at age 7, little Leonid started classes at a local school.
“They tried to start me at 6, but I didn’t have the attention span. I guess I wasn’t careful, or paying attention, and broke a couple of violins.”
Practicing never came easy for him, he said, but once he took the stage, his fate as a performing violinist was sealed.
“When I go on stage, it’s almost like being transformed into a different person,” he said. “In fact, when I was in the fourth grade -- 7 or 8 (years old) -- I was in a competition and one of my teachers was in the audience and didn’t recognize me.”
It was about that time that his mother began attempting to get permission to leave St. Petersburg and move to New York City. It was a long and difficult process.
“We were trying to leave Russia, and for a number of years we were refused. When people were denied the right to leave Russia, you were fired from your job, and the Soviet government said, ‘Survive how you can.’ My mother lost her job at the conservatory. All her concert tours were cancelled and all her music was taken off the radio. The only way we survived was private students would come in secret, and packages sent from relatives. In fact, when I won first competition, right before leaving Russia, the people were afraid to let me perform at the awards concert, for fear of repercussion.”
In 1977, the family members who were already in the United States, were able to win the family’s right to immigrate by campaigning politicians.
He was raised in New York City and attended the Julliard School of Music. He has never been back to Russia, although his mother, who splits her time now between New York and England, has returned on concert tours.
Leonid has lived in the D.C. area for a decade. He is in his third year as director of the National Chamber Ensemble. He said his mother sometimes comes to see him perform.
“I think she’s proud. Most of the time,” he said. “When she’s in town, I’m very appreciative to play for her. She’s a great artist. Her input is very valuable.”
Sushansky said he is looking forward to starting the season with the ASO and Vivaldi.
“I try the most to make whatever I’m performing at the moment my favorite work. Whatever you’re performing, you have to be fully invested in it. I’ve never had a concert where said, ‘I don’t really like this.’ So, yes, Vivaldi is my favorite. This week. And next week,” he said with a laugh. “This is very exciting to do Vivaldi, because I’m starting the season with Vivaldi with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, and ending the season with Vivaldi. In June, I’m performing the entire “Four Seasons” with the National Chamber Ensemble.”
“One of the things we do the most is talking to the audience during a performance. I try to make it interesting by telling stories, telling jokes – I try to make it a fun, interactive experience. Music is about sharing. When you share music, you’re also sharing yourself, it’s communicating.”
Sushansky said he likes to bridge the gap between the listener and the composer by giving out “the dirt” on the composers.
“Everybody has problems. It brings the composer to life. Most people, when they hear a composer’s name, think of some bust in a lobby, but I try to make the composer human. It helps to connect them to the music.”
But, Leonid said, Vivaldi is one of the few composers who almost doesn’t need any explanation – his music is so full of imagery and so accessible.
“ ‘The Four Seasons’ is probably the greatest or earliest examples of program music — music that tells a story. It’s amazing how accurately each piece portrays the poem without losing the musical quality,” Sushansky said. “In “Autumn,” in the first movement, the peasants are celebrating the harvest, and in the music it says they drink and they become drunk. I do not imagine a drunk person being able to play metronomically, so I make it a little free and unpredictable. Also, he brilliantly demonstrates when they fall asleep, the music demonstrates how they sleep and breathe. … In the first movement, they are dying from the heat, and then in the last movement, have a storm, and you hear the hail beating down the crop.”
Sushansky said while every concert has a great moment and memory for him, his most memorable moment onstage came when he was under the influence.
“It was last May, I had a performance two days after having surprise oral surgery. Doing a performance on Vicodin was interesting. For years I’ve always thought, ‘Hard work, hard work, practice hard,’ and Vicodin makes you think you can do anything. It went really well. I should have discovered Vicodin years ago. All these years, could have just taken a pill. And the concert was called ‘The Russians are Coming,’ so it was appropriate.”
Who: Alexandria Symphony Orchestra & Maestro Kim Allen Kluge
What: Vivaldi “Summer” and “Autumn” from The Four Seasons
Respighi Pines of Rome
Gershwin Piano Concerto in F
When: Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009 at 8:00 p.m.
Where: Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall & Arts Center
NOVA Community College, Alexandria Campus
3001 N. Beauregard St., Alexandria, VA 22311
Price: $20-$80. Call 703-548-0885 or visit www.alexsym.org for tickets