The Proteus String Quartet reveals the many sides of an ensemble in the making

What does it take to make a string quartet? A little luck, a lot of talent and a bit of savvy – at least that’s impression you get when talking with violinist John Sumerlin, a music professor at Rhode Island College and founder of the newly formed Proteus String Quartet.

In addition to Sumerlin, Proteus includes violinist Samuel Breene, violist Susan Culpo and cellist Steven Laven, all members of the college’s string faculty. The quartet debuted last fall at RIC and will be performing again on Monday, April 11, at 8 p.m. in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall.

The program will feature works by Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Wolf and Puccini.

Proteus is the second string quartet begun by Sumerlin. About 30 years ago in Texas, he started the Harrington String Quartet, which is still in existence. But that was a quite different scenario. The Harrington had a sizable endowment from an oil company and was a full-time ensemble performing around 60 concerts a year.

The experience did help Sumerlin learn the ropes and taught him a lot about string quartet literature.

In forming a string quartet at an institution the size of Rhode Island College, one of the problems was finding a position for a second violin. Usually, there are not enough students to justify it.

That’s where luck came in, in the form of Samuel Breene, who was hired as a musicologist but who was also a violinist with chamber music experience.

“If it weren’t for Sam Breene, we wouldn’t exist,” Sumerlin said.

Breene’s interest in performing had him joining the college’s symphony orchestra, where Sumerlin is concertmaster, but he did not get a sense of Breene’s ability as a chamber musician until a student in one of Sumerlin’s senior string quartets fractured his hand.

Normally, Sumerlin would have stepped in; however, he asked the new faculty member to substitute. Breene knew the work the group was playing and he accepted.

Sumerlin recollected, “He came and worked with my quartet, and in a week they did the concert.

“When I heard him playing, I was immediately overwhelmed with his excellence and his leadership. Everything about his playing was so spectacular that it planted the seed in mind [for a string quartet].”

Then it became a matter of finding the right violist and cellist, and through contacts in such organizations as the Rhode Island Philharmonic and Brown University, Sumerlin found Culpo and Laven.

“Sitting together as a group,” Sumerlin said, “we pretty much knew on that day that we had the right mix. Within a single afternoon of playing together and interacting, we all felt that we happened upon something that was pretty unusual. We love playing together; we enjoy each other’s company.”

The Proteus quartet is named after a sea god (hence a kind of Rhode Island connection, according Sumerlin) who is also a shape shifter able to take numerous forms. And that’s what players in a string quartet do; they are constantly changing roles. One minute they might be playing melody and the next accompaniment, making it paramount that they understand and respond to each other as musicians.

“No matter how good four individual players are,” said Sumerlin, “they are not a quartet of stature until they’ve played quite a bit of music together. One learns so much about another person’s playing over time.”

While the members of Proteus are all interested in new and experimental music, and even venturing into non-classical areas, they are pretty much staying with the basic string quartet literature for now, in order to develop their communication and performance skills.

But within that framework, the ensemble still mixes things up a bit. While the upcoming concert will feature two of the most important works in the string quartet repertoire: Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 76, No. 1 (1797), and Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 in B-flat (1826), it will also include three shorter, less familiar works.

Of them, the piece by a composer most readily associated with the string quartet is “Quartettsatz” by Franz Schubert, a work from 1820 that exists only as a single movement. “Quartettsatz” is the popular name for the String Quartet in C Minor, D. 703, which, like Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, is one of the composer’s notable unfinished works.

Another of the shorter pieces is the “Italian Serenade” of Hugo Wolf, a composer best known for his lieder (songs), who completed the serenade in three days, May 2-4, 1887, and in 1892 revisited the piece, arranging it for chamber orchestra.

Finally, there is “Crisantemi” (Chrysanthemums) by Giacomo Puccini, whose non-operatic works are rarely performed. Subtitled an elegy for string quartet, “Crisantemi,” was composed in a single night in 1890, as Puccini claimed, in response to the death of the Duke of Savoy.

Themes from this work will be familiar to opera fans as Puccini re-used them in his “Manon Lescaut.”

Concerning the Beethoven quartet, Proteus will be playing the amended version, which replaces the “Grosse Fuge” finale with a more upbeat movement that Beethoven wrote at the request of his publishers. Sumerlin pointed out that this quartet uses a “wide variety of forms not normally found in string quartets from the classical period … culminating in the Cavatina movement, which most people believe is an anguished lament over the death of Beethoven’s nephew.”

“It’s some very poignant music, ” he added.

All together, the pieces on Proteus’ program raise two engaging questions: Why have so many different types of composers tried their hand at the string quartet and why has the form given rise to such great music?

“Inherent in the string instruments themselves is the quality of personifying a role in a musical entity,” Sumerlin said. “In a quartet you hear four individual people, all from different points of view, all from different ranges, all with different personality types, automatically associated with who plays what instrument, and those people are earnestly in discussion. It’s that interaction of disparate points of view, but coming from the same family, that, I think, attracts composers to that genre.

“It’s an ideal combination of voices that makes a complete and satisfying whole.”

A composer himself – his opera “Air,” for instance, premiered at the college in 2004, Sumerlin was asked if he intended to write a work for Proteus.

Although he has previously composed string quartets, a new one is still a ways down the line. It is more likely that Proteus first will expand its repertoire by collaborating occasionally with guest musicians in a quintet, sextet or even octet, all close to the standard repertoire but still representing some highly challenging music.

The quartet is also exploring off-campus performance opportunities and eventually hopes to expand its schedule to include well-known music festivals.

Whatever form the Proteus String Quartet takes in the future, it appears likely that it will be significantly enhancing the chamber music scene at Rhode Island College and beyond.

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