Leo Sushansky studied violin with Isaac Stern, performed on a Marvin Hamlisch TV special at age 12 and during his teen years was a scholarship student at the Julliard School.
But deep down beats the heart of a stand-up comic.
“I love talking to the audience and I love making people laugh,” the founder and artistic director of the National Chamber Ensemble said during a recent discussion helping to kick off the Arlington-based organization’s 12th season, dubbed “Musical Adventures Through the Time Machine.”
By being approachable, “you can change people’s perceptions” about music.
“Every concert is a different adventure,” he said. “It’s so much fun for me because I get to do different genres. My favorite piece to perform is whatever is coming up at the moment; I get so immersed.”
The 15 members of the National Chamber Ensemble come from a range of backgrounds, from members of the National Symphony and Washington Opera to those who tour internationally but return to the local area for performances. Housed for years at Rosslyn Spectrum, the demise of that facility led the ensemble to Gunston Middle School’s large auditorium and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.
“Both are wonderful spaces, but [required] a little adjustment for our audience,” said Sushansky, who has been an Arlington resident for 20 years.
His connection with the local area came about when he attended graduate school at the University of Maryland. “I lived in Maryland but I liked Virginia more,” he told members of the Kiwanis Club of Arlington.
Sushansky came to the attention of Catherine Filene Shouse, the arts patron and enthusiast who donated the land on which Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is located. Shouse invited him to live in an apartment on her estate – “who could say ‘no’ to that?” – and encouraged acclaimed violinist Stern to take him under his wing.
Establishing the National Chamber Ensemble took Sushansky into the new-to-him arena of arts management; the organization was aided through support of the law firm Patton Boggs (now Squire Patton Boggs) and has retained a core audience during a decade of national economic ups and downs. In addition to ticket sales and philanthropic support, the arts group also is backed by the National Endowment for the Arts, Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Arlington County government.
Lucy Bowen McCauley, founder and artistic director of Bowen McCauley Dance, has partnered with the National Chamber Ensemble and Sushansky, and was exuberant in her praise.
“I am a big fan of Leo’s exquisite violin playing and his commitment to bringing high-quality chamber music to Arlingtonians and beyond. He is a delight to work with professionally, as he is sensitive to the tempo and nuance needed when working with a choreographer and dancers,” Bowen McCauley said. “We look forward to our collaboration with the NCE every year and are doing it bigger and better this season.”
Sushanksy is a man of many talents – musician, storyteller, latent comedian – but one thing you probably won’t see him do on stage is engage in melodic vocal performances.
“My singing days ended when I was about 11 [and] my voice changed,” he said. “I figured I’d better stick with violin.”
Despite the current challenge for many performance groups in finding space in Arlington, Sushansky said the community and National Chamber Ensemble have proved a good match he hopes will continue.
“We’ve brought a lot of fun to Arlington,” he said.
The National Chamber Enbsemble’s 2018-19 season kicks off with “Masters of Italian Baroque” on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Gunston Arts Center Theatre I. For information on the 2018-19 season, see the Web site at www.nationalchamberensemble.org.