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It’s not quite as momentous as the young Elvis stepping behind Sam Phillips’ microphone at Sun Studios or Charlie Parker experimenting with his first bebop riffs. Still, Chris Ullman can claimwith some legitimacyto be creating a new musical genre: orchestral whistling.
A onetime spokesman for Republican Rep. John Kasich, Ullman, 34, now spends his days flacking at the Securities and Exchange Commission. But more and more, his nights are spent as a guest soloist whistling with symphony orchestras. He has already performed with regional orchestras in Virginia and Pennsylvania and has done several gigs locally with the National Symphony Orchestra, including a Labor Day concert on the Mall and a fundraiser at Sam Donaldson’s house. Next March, Ullman will appear for the first time outside the Northeast as he joins two regional orchestras in Texas.
“I got good feedback,” he recalls. “My family never said, ‘Stop itthat’s annoying.’ Actually, my father liked it.”
Since 1993, Ullman has competed in the annual National Whistling Contest in Louisburg, N.C., typically against a field of 30 ”half of them very, very good, and the other half very good.” In succession, Ullman has lost, won, lost, won, and lost, meaning that, by the numbers, he’ll be expected to win next April’s 25th-anniversary contest.
Ullman’s victories have landed him on This Morning, Today, Tonight, and NPR, and he has whistled the national anthem at pro sports events. But not fully satisfied, Ullmanan alto-soprano with a three-octave rangehas relentlessly pursued acceptance by those elitest of elitists, symphony orchestras. After getting a polite rejection from the NSO six years ago, Ullman went about building a track record by sending unsolicited requests to 40 orchestras within driving distance of Washington. He got a few hits, from outfits like the the Mary Washington College Symphony Orchestra and the Erie Chamber Orchestra.
He eventually won over the NSO by cornering the orchestra’s associate conductor at a performance at Wolf Trap. “Her brain must not have been churning much,” he recalls. “I whistled a tune. She paused and turned to the artistic director, then went over to confer. They asked what I was doing on Labor Day. Turns out they had a piece that required a whistler.” The Labor Day gig earned Ullman a one-line mention in the Washington Post’s review the following day, which dubbed him “an extraordinary musician” whose segment was “most enjoyable.”
One time, he weaseled his way onto the stage at B.B. King’s in Memphis after somebody recognized him from TV. Dick Armey once ordered him to whistle Dixie at a GOP strategy session when things got hairy. These days, Ullman will whistle for his supper in any number of genreshis “signature piece” is by Mozart, but he says he’ll do show tunes, jazz, pop, even “Stairway to Heaven” if asked. “If I can get Leonard Slatkin to listen and get beyond the novelty and actually consider it art that’s good enough for the subscriber series,” he says, “that would be a good goal.”Louis Jacobson