To Hell and Bach

 

 

 

“I once had dinner with Salvador Dalí,” says João Carlos Martins, weighing a glass of Cabernet  in his left hand. “It was 1967, at the Russian Tea Room and I had just played Carnegie Hall. He said, ‘Let me give you some advice. Start telling everybody that you are the greatest. In 30 years, they will start to believe you.’” He laughs and sips. “Perhaps they are starting now.”

Martins cuts a dashing figure at his table at an Upper East Side restaurant: tanned, obscurely Continental, perhaps a man of letters or the arts, silver hair brushing the lapel of his camel sports jacket. But the man makes an unsettling first impression. His handshake is a rough clutch at your forearm, the last three fingers palsied and stiff. It’s always flinch-inducing when an otherwise robust man wanes disabled your grip, but in this case it’s rather more so since João Carlos Martins is a concert pianist, known as the most dynamic performer of Bach’s keyboard repertoire. He has a concert at Carnegie Hall in less than three weeks and he’s clutching his fork like a lower form of primate.

Though the scene reads like cheap, O. Henry dramatic irony, Horatio Alger and García Márquez are better reference points since Martins not just perform at Carnegie Hall but soar. This will close the third of fourth act in the South American life of a pianist, banker, boxing promoter, cultural minister, and now, virtual Lazarus of neurology.

Martins emerged in the early sixties possessed of phenomenal technique—Stereo Review called it “the clearest, most articulated and vital keyboard playing you have ever heard”—and an almost scandalously emotional approach to his chosen purview, Johann Sebastian Bach. “I believe Bach to be a prophet,’ he says today. “Through him I feel I can be romantic, modern, Impressionist, everything.” And so Martins began an explosive career that, in 1961, had him performing for JFK and Castro in the same week. Then, in 1966, fate intervened in the form of a soccer game in Central Park. While he was practicing with a professional Brazilian team, Martins fell.

“A stone came into my right elbow,” he says, rolling up his sleeve to show the site. “This,” he says, momentously, “was my first accident.”

After surgery and months of physical therapy, Martins found he was still having problems at the piano. “Without realizing it, I had readjusted my positioning on the keyboard,” he says. “It was beginning to affect everything.” Soon Martins sensed that this repetitive motion injury—as the common malady would be called today—had sapped his the vitality of his playing. Soon after a New York Times critic confirmed his fears with a  mixed review in 1970, Martins decided it hopeless and quit music.

“It was so difficult to look at the piano,” he says now. “I just put a curtain over that part of my lie.” Crushed, divorced, and 31, he moved back to Sao Paulo, where he took a job as a bank teller.

It may be that a febrile drive to redefine music’s most architecturally supreme composer can find expression in other numerical fields. Or maybe pianists just make good bankers. In any case, within six months, Martins had worked his way up to become part owner of the bank. Soon he amassed enough capital to launch a career as a boxing and, later, rock promoter, adding to his cultural achievements the introduction of Alice Cooper to Brazil. By the late seventies, he was thriving entrepreneur, prized member of Brazilian society, and so, apparently, due for another turning point.

“One day, I turned on the television and saw a classical concert,” he recalls. “It was a wonderful Brazilian pianist, Antonio Barbosa. I just started crying.” He went back to the piano, played in private for a while, then began practicing intently. Slowly, he regained his facility and booked a return concert at Carnegie Hall. It was 1979 and Martins had apparently been missed. “The cabs couldn’t move from Sixth to Seventh Avenue on 57th Street,” eh says. “I played one of the best recitals of my life.” The success prompted a mission: to record all the works Bach wrote for keyboard.

This ambitious goal was quixotic for Martins, since his repetitive-motion injury required him 48 hours of bed rest prior to a concert. “With this syndrome, you wake up in the morning and can do anything,” says Martins. “But then after one hour, you’re stuck.” The frustrations proved too much once, in 1985, when he quit and started a construction company in Brazil. But he eventually resumed his survey of the Bach works—about 30 hours of music—and is now one year and three discs from completion.

In 1993, though, in Bulgaria, Martins’ luck caught up with him. He and his within the perfect acoustics of an was mugged – by Gypsies, no less – on his way from a recording session. A blow to the head left him unconscious for hours. When he was revived, doctors reassured him that a stroke caused by the injury was relatively minor, and left only one part of his anatomy mostly paralyzed. Guess which one.

“His right hand was completely spastic,” says Dr. Bernard Brucker, a medical-school professor and pioneer of biofeedback therapy. Martins’ hand surgeon had suggested Brucker, whose resumé included restoring a paralyzed girls’ ability to walk. Martins’ request as rather more extravagant. “He couldn’t hold a cup,” says Brucker. “We were hoping just to restore gross motor coordination.” Instead, he’d been asked to restore the ability to play twenty notes a second.

Biofeedback therapy—reprogramming the brain to use different cells for the same task – takes extraordinary concentration and sensitivity, but Martins was a star pupil. “He understood very precise, fine motor control much better than other people,” the doctor remembers. “And his dedication was complete. It was life and death for him.”

Now, putting down his glass, Martins shows the results—thrummingly dashing off a Mozart concerto on the tablecloth, each dancing digit fleet and agile. “My ability is better than I’ve had in my whole life,” he says. Though he has yet to relearned handshaking or fork-holding – he postponed work on non-piano-playing functions, will, on May 5, prove that his most important rehabilitation is complete. He’ll play Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand and Ginastera’s First Piano Concerto, followed, on May 19, with a solo recital of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. It is the equivalent of a paraplegic Baryshnikov rehabilitated to dance Swan Lake.

Though his outrageous fortunes beg some closing epigram, the pianist doesn’t offer any other than a cryptic: “The Chinese say ‘Before learning to multiply, learn to divide.’” But he does credit one person, his father, as a crucial inspiration through this strange time. At 98, the senior Martins remains the sort of magical-realist patriarch that befits such a story. “His dream was to be a pianist,” says Martins. “But when he was 10, eh lost his finger in a press machine. Still, he has managed to live to 98 very well without that finger.”

New York Magazine. May 6, 1996

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I once had dinner with Salvador Dalí,” says João Carlos Martins, weighing a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon in his left hand. “It was 1967, at the Russian Tea Room and I had just played Carnegie Hall. He said, ‘Let me give you some advice. Start telling everybody that you are the greatest. In 30 years, they will start to believe you.’” He laughs and sips. “Perhaps they are starting now.”

 

Raconteurish charm aside, Martins is an unsettling man to meet. His handshake is a loose clutch at your forearm, the last three fingers palsied and stiff. It’s always flinch-inducing when an otherwise robust person wanes disabled in your grip, but in this case, it’s just a bit more so because Martins is – in addition to the sort of dashing, professorial Latino who turns heads at this Upper East Side restaurant – a concert piano, possibly the world’s most dynamic interpreter of Bach’s keyboard repertoire, and slated to perform at Carnegie Hall in three weeks.

 

Though the scene is straight out of O. Henry, Horatio Alger and García Márquez are better reference points. In his 55 years, João Carlos Martins has been a pianist, a banker, a boxing promoter, Brazil’s minister of culture, and now, a virtual Lazarus of neurology. The life of Brazil’s most dazzling virtuosos is hardly some grim study in dramatic irony. In fact, it’s much, much stranger.

 

Martins emerged in the early sixties possessed of phenomenal technique – Stereo Review called it “the clearest, most articulated an vital keyboard playing you have ever heard” – and an almost scandalously emotional approach to his chosen purview, Johann Sebastian Bach. “I believe Bach to be a prophet,’ he explains today. “Through him I feel I can be romantic, modern, Impressionist, everything.” And so he began an explosive career that, in 1961, had him performing for JFK and Castro in the same week. Then, in 1966, fate intervened in the form of a Central Park soccer game. While practicing with a professional Brazilian team, Martins fell.

 

“A stone came into my right elbow,” he says, rolling up his sleeve. “This,” he says, momentously, “was my first accident.”

 

After surgery and months of physical therapy, Martins was still having problems. “Without realizing it, I had readjusted my positioning on the keyboard,” he says. “It was beginning to affect everything.” Repetitive motion injury – as the common malady would later be classified – sapped his playing. When Donal Henahan, the New York Times critic, confirmed Martins fears with a mixed review in 1970, he finally found it hopeless. He quite. “It was so difficult to look at the piano,” he explains. “I just put a curtain over that part of my life.” Crushed, divorced, and 31, he moved back to Sao Paulo and took a job as a bank teller.

 

It may be that the same febrile intelligence that drives one to redefine the most architecturally supreme of composer spills over in strange, unexpected ways. Or it may be that pianists make good bankers. In any case, within six months, Martins had worked his way up to part owner. Then, with his amassed capital, he started a career as a boxing and, alter, rock promoter, adding to his cultural achievements the introduction of Alice Cooper to Brazil. He had become a hugely successful entrepreneur – overdue, it would seem, for another turning point.

 

“One day, I turned on the television and saw a classical concert,” he recalls. “It was a wonderful Brazilian pianist, Antonio Barbosa. I just started crying.” So he began practicing again, regaining his facility, and gave return concert at Carnegie Hall in 1979. Martins had been missed. “The cabs couldn’t move from Sixth to Seventh Avenue on 57th Street,” eh says. “I played one of the best recitals of my life.” The success prompted a mission: to record all the works Bach wrote for keyboard.

 

But the already ambitious goal was made even more quixotic by Martins’ repetitive-motion injury, which required 48 hours of bed rest prior to a concert. “With this syndrome, you wake up in the morning and can do anything,” says Martins. “But then after one hour, you’re stuck.” The frustrations proved too much once, in 1985, when he quit and started a construction company in Brazil. But he eventually resumed his survey of the Bach works – about 30 hours of music – and is now one year and three discs from completion.

 

In 1993, though, in Bulgaria, Martins’ luck caught up with him: H was mugged – by Gypsies, no less – on his way from a recording session. A blow to the head left him unconscious for hours and triggered a minor stroke, paralyzing a certain part of his anatomy. Guess which one.

 

“His right hand was completely spastic,” says Dr. Bernard Brucker, a medical-school professor and pioneer of biofeedback therapy. Martins’ hand surgeon had suggested Brucker, whose resumé included restoring a paralyzed girls’ ability to walk. Martins’ request as rather more extravagant. “He couldn’t hold a cup,” says Brucker. “We were hoping just to restore gross motor coordination.” Instead, he was being asked to restore the ability to play twenty notes a second.

 

Biofeedback therapy – reprogramming the brain to use different cells for the same task – takes extraordinary concentration and sensitivity, but Martins was a star pupil. “He understood very precise, fine motor control much better than other people,” the doctor remembers. “And his dedication was complete. It was life and death for him.”

 

Now, putting down his glass, Martins shows the results – thrummingly dashing off a Mozart concerto on the tablecloth. “My ability is better than I’ve had in my whole life,” he says. Though he has yet to relearned handshaking or fork-holding – he postponed work on non-piano-playing functions, will, on May 5, prove that his most important rehabilitation is complete. He’ll play Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand and Ginastera’s First Piano Concerto, followed, on May 19, with a solo recital of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. It is the equivalent of a paraplegic Baryshnikov rehabilitated to dance Swan Lake.

 

Though his outrageous fortunes beg some kind of epigram the pianist is reluctant to offer life lessons (other than, cryptically, ‘The Chinese say “Before learning to multiply, learn to divide.’”) He does, however, credit one person, his father, as a particular inspiration. At 98, the senior Martins remains the sort of magical-realist patriarch that befits such a story. “His dream was to be a pianist,” says Martins. “But when he was 10, eh lost his finger in a press machine. Still, he has managed to live to 98 very well without that finger.”

 

New York Magazine. May 6, 1996