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Music Review Print

Not Whistlin' "Dixie" - at the 30th Annual International Whistlers Convention

April 26, 2003 - Louisburg, NC:

On the afternoon of April 26, at the 30th Annual International Whistlers Convention (http://www.whistlingiwc.com/ [inactive 6/07]), no one whistled "Dixie," but a conflation of the tune, allegedly tooted in counterpoint to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" - it must have offended literally everyone in attendance - was mentioned by M.C. Mitch Hider (1982 International Grand Champion, of Monroe, Oregon), during the competition finals, held in the lovely auditorium of Louisburg College, up the road just a bit from the home of WCPE. Readers who (like this writer) have heard about the event for years but never attended it should know that this is a very big deal ! People came from as far away as the U.K., and from all over America, to whistle in Franklin County. The Board of Commissioners - and the Governor, too - proclaimed "Happy Whistlers Week." And if that weren't enough, there was more classical music in the span of two hours than we've heard in Louisburg in all the years we've been going there, including several semesters when No. 2 son was a student!

Whistling has always been a popular form of music making, and more or less professional whistlers go back a long, long time. Collectors of old recordings (cylinders and flat acoustic discs) will be familiar with the genre - there were apparently hundreds of records of whistlers, whose piercing tone (like that of coloratura sopranos) cut through wax much better than, say, pianos or orchestras, in pre-electrical days (and later, too).

Granted, some of the classical music would have fit the formats of nameless all-classical stations...; in the finals, which involved a dozen people (five women and seven men, culled from a starting field of 33), there were bits and pieces of things, but those things included works by Mozart (from the Oboe Concerto, and from Le nozze di Figaro ), Tchaikovsky (from Nutcracker ), Chopin (the E Flat Nocturne, whistled by several people), Bach (several selections, including a dazzling realization of the finale of the Second Orchestral Suite), J. Strauss II (a bit of the "Blue Danube Waltz"), Schubert ("Ave Maria," realized by two contestants), and the Flower Duet (yes!) from Delibes' Lakmé (one whistler, both parts, sort of...). The pop portion of the competition included music by Brubeck, Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Sondheim, and a piccolo-like realization of Sousa's best-known march, delivered by the person who would be named the International Grand Champion on the male side of the house.

For this listener, who has only once before sat as a formal judge (and never for whistling; there were apparently five experienced whistling experts who served as the judges in Louisburg), the chief attraction was visiting whistling star Jason Victor Serinus (of Oakland, California), who delivered a truly amazing version of Magda's big "Doretta" aria, from Puccini's La Rondine . Serinus is a critic as well as a celebrated whistler, and his reviews had impressed us prior to this contest. His performance was remarkable, often breathtaking in its beauty, and, all told, profoundly moving, for he is a true artist - whose big claim to fame, as a whistler, stems from having been "the Voice of Woodstock," in the Peanuts flick. Indeed, the best of these folks are not unlike the finest singers. If you think about it, many of the same techniques and qualities come into play - breath control, of course, and intonation, phrasing, and dynamics. Some had breaks, akin to those that occur in singers, and had learned to whistle "through" them. Tone color and texture play roles, too, and there were further challenges (for some) involving microphone technique. Nearly everyone used recorded accompaniments - few performed a cappella. The tapes were kept at low volumes, for there was no wolf-whistling here: this is a subtle, often delicate and generally subdued art form. There were many other variables, too. Some conducted themselves, others danced. One person indulged in an "accepted" alternative style, called palette whistling, that was much more "physical" than most of the rest of the pack. The jowls of some whistlers resembled those of Louis Armstrong, in full cry, and moved almost as freely. And a surprising lot of the whistling was, well, out of this world.

The big winners were:

* Casey Aycock (of Louisburg) (classical and popular categories and Children's International Grand Champion);
* Christian Joy Leonard (of Louisburg) (classical and popular and Teenage Grand Champion - female);
* Cal Fenwick (of Kirkfield, Ontario, Canada) (classical and popular and Teenage Grand Champion - male);
* Carol Skinner (of Miller, South Dakota) (classical and popular and International Grand Champion - female); and
* David Morris (of Manchester, England) (classical and International Grand Champion - male).

There followed still more special awards, including another one for Morris, for having traveled the greatest distance, and at the very end, Serinus was inducted into the Whistlers Hall of Fame (maintained in Louisburg), for his many years of service to the art.

There was very good pre-event coverage on the tube and in commercial papers; a big spread in the N&O that appeared on April 20 and that featured Convention Director Allen de Hart, of Louisburg (who has also made a name for himself as a hiker and writer), is worth a look. The week officially began on April 21, per the aforementioned proclamations. There was an all-day whistling school ("reservations necessary," the program said) on April 24. The contestants visited senior citizens' and day-care centers on the morning of April 25, and the competition began that afternoon; the program allowed for six and a half hours of preliminaries(!). The morning of the 26th offered remarks by politicians, competitions for children (28 were scheduled to take part) and teens, and the adult run-offs, which we've described above. At the closing banquet, there was (of course) more whistling, and those who still hadn't had enough could take in various religious services the next morning, where whistling remained the order of the day. As we said, this is a very big deal. We'll try to include the dates of the 31st Annual Convention in our calendar next spring.