Bassoonist Wanted: Woodwind Quartet’s ‘Impresario’ Arranger, 85, to Play Last Show
The Sunflower Quartet, from left, Ann Givens, of Grantham, Steve Jordan, of Sunapee, Earl North, of Canaan, and Tom Norton, of Thetford, rehearse at North’s home. They are preparing for a Saturday concert in Lebanon.Valley News — Sarah Priestap
Since a woodwinds quartet isn't common, Earl North took it upon himself to arrange several songs, including George Gershwin's "Lets Call the Whole Thing Off," for the quartet.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
Earl North adjusts the reed on his bassoon at a practice for the Sunflower Quartet at his home in Canaan on Tuesday.
Valley News — Sarah Priestap
Canaan — Classical music junkies know: Finding four-piece arrangements to be played on flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon can be done — but it’s not always easy.
Songs are often arranged for woodwind quintets or string quartets, not quartets of woodwinds.
And even when songs are arranged for four-piece woodwinds, the variety can sometimes be lacking.
That’s one of the reasons why members of the Sunflower Quartet, an Upper Valley group that rehearses every week in Canaan, said they have been lucky to have Earl North, 85, as their bassoonist.
North boasts a long and storied musical career that began in the Army Band in 1945. He founded the Sunflower Quartet in 2005 — back when it was just the Sycamore Trio — and has hosted the rehearsals in his home for the past four years.
But perhaps more pertinently, it’s North who transcribes the majority of the music that the quartet plays, creating arrangements that work for this particular group of instruments.
“It’s just the variety, all the different genres that Earl arranges for us,” said oboist Steve Jordan, 69, an internist at New London Hospital, after a rehearsal this week in Canaan. He said it’s “probably been one of the most enjoyable experiences that I’ve had.”
The quartet — which includes flutist Ann Givens, 58, of Grantham, and clarinetist Tom Norton, 53, of Thetford — was preparing for an upcoming show this Saturday at the First Congregational Church in downtown Lebanon at 7:30 p.m.
While Saturday’s performance will be the quartet’s first show at that venue, it will be their last show with North as bassoonist, as he is stepping away because of arthritis in his hands.
“In a word, I’m tired,” he said, laughing.
“My hands are pretty arthritic, and when you play a woodwind instrument, you need your fingers. That’s basically the reason — not that I’m disappointed or anything with the group. Far from it. It’s a very good group, and I’m going to miss the idea of playing with the quartet, of course, and I’m going to miss the people who are in it, but I think it’s time to move on.
“The others say they don’t hear it,” he added, “but I sure do, and I feel it, and there are times when I go to play a certain group of notes and nothing happens, and it’s kind of scary if you’re in performance.”
That’s an unusual feeling for North, who’s been playing professionally for 60 years. His musical life started even earlier, as he learned trombone in middle school while growing up in Rhode Island.
In 1945, he enlisted in the Army, completing basic training in Alabama, and joined the Army Band. But he didn’t encounter the bassoon until his subsequent three-year deployment to Germany, when his band leader offered to give bassoon lessons to anyone who was interested.
“So I took him up on it,” North said, smiling. He admired the instrument’s characteristics and range, as the bassoon is a “three-voice” instrument — bass, tenor and alto.
“I really liked it. It seemed a natural for me, so I decided to stick with it,” he said.
After Germany, he returned to Fort Benning in Georgia until the Korean War broke out. He served overseas from August 1950 to December 1951.
“We were still a band, but we weren’t operating as a band very much. We were doing security guards and running shotgun on convoys and all kinds of good stuff, but we didn’t get to play too much music,” he said.
Returning this time to Kansas, he met his future wife, Mae, who was also enlisted in the Army, creating graphic designs for plans and training.
But he soon left for the Military Band School in Washington, D.C., and a second deployment to Germany, and she left for Okinawa, meaning they had a “long-term romance,” North joked.
While in Germany in 1953, a friend suggested he audition for the Army’s prestigious 7th Army Symphony.
“I didn’t think I played that well,” he said, “but evidently they thought it was OK, because they called me about three weeks later and asked me if I was still interested, and I said, ‘naturally.’ ”
He retired from service as a sergeant in 1955, studying the bassoon as an undergraduate at Capitol University in Columbus, Ohio, where he was married to Mae, and as a graduate student at Indiana University.
After a brief stint in Florida, the couple moved back north, where North joined Boston’s Reed Teacher’s Agency and found back-to-back yearlong jobs working as a music teacher in New Hampshire schools.
The couple moved to Canaan in 1963, raising two children, and have lived there since. North supported the family as a music teacher — both in public schools and private one-on-one lessons — as well as working as a performer and arranger.
He played with various Dartmouth groups, as well as the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Opera North and North Country Community Theatre, and was a founding member of the Upper Valley Music Center in 1995.
Being a freelance musician in the Upper Valley was “not the best way to make a living,” North said, laughing. “But we managed.”
He met Givens, the flutist, and Norton, the clarinetist, through the Upper Valley Music Center, and the Sycamore Trio — named, like the quartet, for a Scott Joplin ragtime piano tune — was born.
“I just mentioned … at one point, ‘How’d you like to get together and play some trios?,’ because I had arranged a few things and I wanted to hear what they sounded like,” North said.
Trios and quartets are often arranged for string groups, but “I felt I could do a lot of the same thing with woodwinds,” he said. “And a lot of other people have done the same thing. I haven’t invented it by any means. I just like the idea of arranging music that’s not normally associated with four and five players of woodwinds for that combination.”
Jordan, the oboist, joined the group five years ago, and the foursome became fast friends, they said. In addition to enjoying North’s arrangements, they liked the opportunity to play in a quartet, they said. As Givens put it, in a large orchestra, you can become just one among many, but in a quartet, “you’re it.”
“We each have our own part, (and) every part is crucial to the whole sound,” Norton agreed.
North said the prospect of playing his last show with them on Saturday is likely to be emotional for him.
“It probably will be. I keep thinking about it,” he said. “I probably won’t put my instrument up for sale right away, but that’s not too distant in the future.”
Likewise, Givens and the others said they will miss playing with their leader — their “impresario.”
“We’re hoping to keep going with another bassoonist,” Norton said. “But it won’t be the same.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.