Tonight at Lincoln Center I listened to the Orchestra Filarmonica Bachiana, led by Joao Carlos Martins. It was an early concert (6PM), set at Brazilian prices ($25 orchestra seats), which was one reason why I went (I had $10 seats). Sr. Martins came on stage, and the audience rose to its feet. He had a thick mop of gray nearly white hair, wore an oversized black jacket with tails and sleeves that hung almost to his fingers, and baggy trousers that formed ripples as they met the tops of his shoes. This man had debuted at Carnegie Hall as a pianist at age 21. Before age 30, he had played with major orchestras worldwide. Then, while playing soccer in Central Park (he's Brazilian after all), he had ruptured his ulnar nerve (which ennervates much of the hand). It would have been a career-ending injury for most people. But he came back to play at Carnegie Hall eight years later. During that time, he also recorded the first half of Bach's complete keyboard works. Seven years later he was diagnosed with repetitive movement syndrome, also a career-ending diagnosis for most people. Again, he made a comeback, recording the second half of the Bach series. Ten years later, he was mugged in Bulgaria, leaving him with a skull fracture, brain damage, and the inability to move his right arm. He underwent rehab, and staged yet another comeback, performing at Carnegie Hall one year later. Yet his right hand continued to atrophy, and a botched operation four years later made it virtually useless. In 2002, a tumor was discovered in his left hand. After that, he channeled his passion for music into conducting, founding the Orchestra Filarmonica Bachiana six years ago. The group started from bare bones, practicing in a hotel room in Sao Paolo. This troubled history may, in part, explain Sr. Martins' warm welcome as he walked awkwardly and slowly onstage tonight.
The concert began with Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Dreaming (which transports me to another realm, no matter how often I hear it), followed by Ginastera's Piano Concerto No. 1 (with pianist Arthur Moreira Lima, a piece new to me, full of the jangled angst of modern life, and the syncopated rhythmns of Argentine dance). The nasal sshshing and zzzhing of whispered Portuguese accompanied much of the piece, revealing a more social audience than your usual Lincoln Center crowd. The second half began with another Bach: Awake, the Voice Commands (soothing after the dissonance of Ginastera). That was followed by Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras no. 7, and the orchestra played the piece with such heart and emotion that I don't remember breathing. At its conclusion I leapt to my feet with everyone else, calling for more. Sr. Martins gently hushed the audience. In heavily accented English he spoke haltingly in a manner that, though projected from stage, revealed a soft spoken nature. He said, when I was feeling dark and low, lying in my hospital bed, I turned on the TV. And playing on it was a movie called "Cinema Paradiso". And that movie kept me going. And now I play for you some music by Ennio Morricone.
That man with floppy gray hair flipped up his tails, sat at the piano, and played excerpts from "The Mission" and "Cinema Paradiso". I hadn't listened to this music for a very long time, but it had never failed to carry me to a place of love, gentleness, and rapture. That is where I went tonight when I listened to those songs and remembered what it was like to feel full of passion. Sr. Martins finished, and we all lept to our feet again, calling for still more. He played a second encore, playful Brazilian music, then exited the stage drawing first the crook of his right arm, then his left, over his eyes, wiping away tears. I wanted to rise out of my nosebleed seats, float above the audience, land on stage, throw my arms around this man, and say, thank you. Thank you! For being so devoted.