ArtsATL > Music > Preview: Pianist Tim Whitehead talks Van Cliburn, Sonic Generator and his solo recital

Preview: Pianist Tim Whitehead talks Van Cliburn, Sonic Generator and his solo recital

Sonic Generator's Tim Whitehead was inspired by Van Cliburn. (Photo by Amber Boardman)


Tim Whitehead of Sonic Generator was inspired by Van Cliburn. (Photo by Amber Boardman)

Tim Whitehead was eight years old when he was told he would take piano lessons. His response was, “Nah, I wanna play football.” But his parents insisted that he take the lessons for at least a year and said that, if he hated it after that, he could quit. He was hooked before the first lesson was over.

Whitehead’s love for music was also inspired by a record album his parents had around the house, of Van Cliburn playing Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” “Pathétique” and “Moonlight” sonatas. “I would sit there for hours and keep on playing that record over and over again,” he recalls. “What I really liked about it was the cover: this black-and-white photograph of him on stage with this superlong piano, the spotlight on him and wearing his tails. I would stare at that picture. I thought it was so cool! I still have the record, actually.”

Today Whitehead is the pianist for Sonic Generator, the high-tech contemporary chamber music ensemble in residence at Georgia Tech. Whitehead will perform a solo recital of contemporary piano music this Saturday, December 15, at {Poem88}  gallery, in the White Provision Building on Howell Mill Road.

Those early piano lessons were hardly a random act of parenting. Born and raised in Atlanta, Whitehead grew up in a musically active family. “Everybody in my family plays piano, at least two instruments,” he says. “My dad is a really talented musician. He’s not a professional, but he easily could have been a professional trumpet player.”

At 18, Whitehead went to study at the esteemed Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he earned a bachelor of music degree. After that he kicked around Rochester for a few months, did his first residency in contemporary music at the Banff Centre in Canada and then took a job as staff pianist at Bennington College in Vermont, where he accompanied students for two years while practicing and building up his own repertoire.

He returned to Atlanta in 2005 to teach at the Georgia Academy of Music and do whatever free-lance gigs he could get. “I didn’t know a lot of people, so I just started accompanying anybody that asked me.” He began to meet other musicians, and they started recommending him as an accompanist for students. Gradually he started to perform with the teachers.

One of those was violinist Helen Kim, who is deeply engaged in Atlanta’s contemporary classical music scene and a member of Sonic Generator. When pianist Lisa Leong left the group to move to Boston with her husband, composer Chris Arell, Kim recommended Whitehead as her replacement. He became Sonic Generator’s pianist in 2010.

In Saturday’s recital, Whitehead will perform music by Anton Webern, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, David Lang and Hywei Davies, a composer he met while at the Banff Centre.

“I think Carter and Webern both have a kind of interesting [use] of silence as some kind of negative space,” he observes. “Particularly Webern. His use of silence is so Romantic and, really, comes straight from Brahms. It’s just the most Romantic thing I can think of. The way he uses silence to counterbalance his fairly sparse textures is just phenomenal.”

Whitehead believes Davies’ “Piano Pieces” has a style similar to Erik Satie’s. “There’re a lot of perfect fifths, a lot of open sonorities and not a lot of barlines,” he explains. “They’re really evocative pieces. It really reminds me of my early 20s, when the war in Iraq started and just that whole time of [feeling] ‘What’s the world coming to? What’s going to happen?’ ”

He adds that Davies composed the pieces while his father was in a hospital’s intensive care unit, listening to the sound of heart monitors against an otherwise pervasive stillness. “You can really hear that [in the pieces], the quiet hospital with the beeping of the machines, really regular,” Whitehead says. “Like his father lying in the hospital: a kind of hopelessness [but] a reflection on life in general.”

The recital will begin at 8 p.m. Admission is free.

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