‘Bionic’ gloves allow João Carlos Martins to play Carnegie Hall
In 1998, legendary pianist João Carlos Martins played what he assumed would be his last concert. He was 58 years old.
“If a camera had been in front of the piano, it would have seen tears running from my eyes,” the acclaimed Brazilian musician, 82, told The Post. “I knew that three days after the concert, I would lose [use of] my right hand.”
Martins, who has played for dignitaries and enjoyed the high-class life in New York as a younger man, had long suffered from a neurological condition called focal dystonia, which caused involuntary spasms in his right hand. Over the years, the pain grew more and more excruciating.
So, just after the 1998 concert, he underwent a surgery to cut his ulnar nerve — which control the muscles in the forearm and hand — on his right side. It was a drastic procedure that left him unable to play the piano with both hands, but Martins found happiness working as a conductor and running music programs for underprivileged teens in Brazil.
“I started a new life,” he told The Post.
But now, the octogenarian is tickling the ivories once again.
In 2020, Martins was gifted a pair of “bionic” extender gloves that miraculously allowed him to play the piano with all 10 digits for the first time in roughly two decades. On Saturday, he’ll show off his new hands with a concert at Carnegie Hall — 60 years after making his debut there as a young prodigy, at the age of 21.
“I could not imagine that I was touching the keyboard with my 10 fingers again,” he said of trying the gloves for the first time. “The first thing I did was play a Chopin “Nocturne,” then Bach, and then” — Martins stopped talking, ran to the piano and excitedly banged out a fiendishly fast passage with lots of chords — “I went all the way. I could not wait.”
The gloves were created by an industrial and automotive designer named Ubiratan Bizarro Costa who came to Martins’ dressing room after a concert he’d conducted. Costa had made the maestro a pair of prototype gloves after seeing him on TV. Martins was touched, but skeptical when he viewed the gadget, which looks more Darth Vader than concert pianist.
“I said, ‘With these gloves perhaps I can win a boxing fight — but it will not help [with the piano] at all.”
Still, he invited Costa to lunch at his house a week later and they began working together to tweak the design of the gloves. The end product is constructed from black neoprene and a 3D-printed frame with stainless steel bars over the fingers. These bars — inspired by the rear-suspension system in a Formula One car — pull Martins’ fingers back up after they touch the keys; otherwise they would just lie inert.
“It’s a palliative solution,” Martins said. “It’s another step for scientists [and] neurologists to find a solution for focal dystonia for musicians.”
While Martins said he’s only 10% the pianist he was at his height, he’s still quite impressive. During a photo shoot on Tuesday at Steinway’s Sixth Avenue showroom, the white-haired maestro eagerly threw off his coat, sat at a piano and launched into a piece written by the Italian film composer Ennio Morricone.
“Not bad, eh?” he said, proudly.
“Now, don’t overdo it,” his producer told him. “You have a concert this week.”
Martins started piano lessons at age 7 in Brazil, winning a national Bach competition six months later. As a young man, he played for Martin Luther King Jr., and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who introduced his Carnegie Hall debut back in 1961, when Martins was just 21. At the peak of his powers, he moved into a swank apartment at 20 E. 80th St., right across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not that he had much time to enjoy it — he was playing concerts all over the world at that point.
But, the piano gods seemed to be plotting against him.
In his early 20s, Martins noticed that the fingers in his right hand would curl involuntarily after a few hours of practice. He soon discovered he suffered from focal dystonia. At 29, he tripped and fell while playing soccer in Central Park, slicing his ulnar nerve, which made the pain in his hand worse.
“I believe in reincarnation,” Martins said. “I think that 200 years ago I was perhaps not a good boy.”
He sold his pianos and moved back to Brazil in 1970. At his lowest, he attempted suicide.
“I went to the bath with a razor, but then the telephone rang,” Martins said.
He struggled through it, undergoing numerous therapies and surgeries — 25 in all — so he could continue to play. Then, in 1995, while recording in Bulgaria, two muggers attacked him, and he suffered a brain concussion. He spent nine months in the hospital.
For his concert at Carnegie Hall Saturday, Martins will conduct the NOVUS NY orchestra in a program featuring Bach, alongside the work of Brazilian composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and André Mehmari. And he’ll play keyboard, too.
“The first thing I did [when I got out] was return to Carnegie Hall to play two piano concertos,” he said.
“I would like to play the same encore that I played 60 years ago, but it is too difficult,” he said. Instead, he’ll end with a quiet, wistful song by Romantic composer Schumann. The name of the piece: “Träumerei.”
“It means dream,” explained Martins, getting emotional. “Because it’s a dream for me after 60 years to be able to touch the piano at Carnegie.”
João Carlos Martins performs with NOVUS NY Saturday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m. at Carnegie Hall. Tickets available at CarnegieHall.org.
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