(Arte: Zina Saunders)
By BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER
"Johann Sebastian Bach was the musical synthesis of everything that came before him and the prophecy of everything that came after him," declares the Brazilian conductor and former pianist João Carlos Martins. "And that is why every artist has the right to mix his individual personality with Bach's—his music allows anything we can do, except things in bad taste."
At Avery Fisher Hall Sunday, Mr. Martins will be presenting this thesis, conducting his own Orchestra Filarmônica Bachiana and the distinguished Brazilian pianist Arthur Moreira Lima. He will pair each of the program's two South American works with an orchestral transcription of a Bach chorale—Charles Roberts's sonorous arrangement of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" precedes the towering Piano Concerto No. 1 by the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera, and Puelli Villani- Cortês's transcription of Bach's soaring "Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme" precedes the "Bachanias Brasilieras No. 7" by Brazil's Heitor Villa-Lobos.
While Villa-Lobos's nine "Bachianas Brasilieras" are, in their composer's words, an "homage to the great genius of Bach," Mr. Martins points out that Ginastera's concerto is connected to this program in two ways: "Ginastera didn't write any music directly inspired by Bach," says Mr. Martins, "but he used to say that for a composer to learn how to write, the first thing to do is to study Bach's compositions." On a more personal level, Mr. Martins notes that "it is now almost 50 years since I myself played the world premiere of Ginastera's concerto."
In 1961, Mr. Martins was a last-minute replacement to give that premiere with the National Symphony Orchestra at the second Inter-American Festival in Washington, D.C. "I was 21, and it was the biggest challenge of my life. I got the score on April 6. . . . Fifteen days later, on April 21, I played the premiere—by heart." In 1968, Mr. Martins recorded the fiendishly difficult work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf, a recording considered a 20th-century classic.
Bach's music not only underlies the theme of Sunday's concert, but is the bedrock upon which Mr. Martins has built his career and the glue that has held that career together. Born in 1940, Mr. Martins made his formal debut at 18 at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico, quickly achieving an international reputation as a Bach interpreter and a prodigious exponent of other repertoire as well.
After making his lauded Carnegie Hall debut in 1961, Mr. Martins appeared with major orchestras and in Bach recitals world-wide and on recordings. Unfortunately, a series of accidents and neurological episodes beginning in 1966 forced him to abandon his career by 1970. He made a comeback in 1978, playing the first book of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" at Carnegie Hall to a sell-out crowd; he soon resumed giving concerts, and embarked upon a complete recording of Bach's keyboard works. Further neurological difficulties in 1985 required prolonged treatment, but by 1993 Mr. Martins again resumed his recording sessions and concerts. This fruitful period was interrupted two years later by a violent mugging while in Bulgaria, which left him with only limited use of his hands.
Through it all, Bach's music gave Mr. Martins the will to persevere. A 2009 film documentary by Michael Lawrence called "Bach and Friends" contains footage of Mr. Martins discussing his successive losses and playing the familiar C-major Prelude from "The Well- Tempered Clavier" after incompletely recovering from this last trauma. To see Mr. Martins's twisted, partially paralyzed hands caress the keys to produce phrasing and sonority of angelic sweetness makes you realize music's ineffable power to help overcome pain and suffering.
Mr. Martins soon found a new outlet for his expression and a way to benefit less fortunate Brazilians. In 2004, he formed the Bachiana Chamber Orchestra and the Bachiana Youth Orchestra, which have now become the 90-player Orchestra Filarmônica Bachiana.
"To start, I selected 45 children—around 17, 18 years old—some of them from the poorest neighborhoods around São Paulo," he says. "Some were studying in local music schools, some were playing in churches. I would ask them, 'How many hours can you practice every day?' A boy would say, 'I can practice two hours every day.' I say, 'OK, but I ask you not to practice less than one hour 50 minutes on any day, and no more than two hours 10 minutes.' After three months, this boy comes to me and asks, 'Maestro, may I now practice a minimum of three hours and a maximum of three hours 10 minutes?' And I knew he had developed discipline. Now it was up to me to develop in these 45 boys and girls the soul of a poet to go with that."
Mr. Martins also engaged 25 of Brazil's best professional players to join the students onstage and coach them in rehearsals. To ensure that all the players were paid from the orchestra's performance income, Mr. Martins took no conducting fees. And to ensure crucial funding without government support, he approached the Federation and the Center for the Industries of the State of São Paulo, and subsequently the Federation of Agriculture. Today, they provide monthly stipends of $1,300 for each student musician and $2,600 for the professionals, who work together up to three times a week. "So after the first five hard years," says Mr. Martins proudly, "we have created Brazil's first privately funded orchestra."
Of the roughly 100 Bachiana Orchestra concerts in Brazil, about half are presented in schools in slum neighborhoods. "Most of these school kids never saw an orchestra in their life," says Mr. Martins. "You cannot imagine their reaction to our concerts, especially because I take only the youth players on these visits. When a kid sees a player who lives 100 meters from his own house, and has found in music a way to earn his living, it makes a big, big impression."
The orchestra's monthly visits to prisons and reformatories make an even bigger impression. "Last month, we visited a reformatory," he says. "At the end of the performance, a father came with his son to me. The boy told me that through music he is finding his way back into society—studying guitar and already giving lessons in his local church. The prison had granted the boy his freedom the previous week, but the boy had asked the authorities please to keep him inside another three days until I visited, so that he could thank me."
Mr. Scherer writes about music and the fine arts for the Journal.
Fonte: The Wall Street Journal