Pianist Ethan Bortnick is a willing performer, delighting audiences with his freshness, charm, and accessibility. He plays classical music, jazz, and rock, as well as his own compositions. He sings. He takes questions from the audience.
Television viewers have seen him on Jay Leno, Oprah, and on “Good Morning America.” He has appeared with Elton John, Natalie Cole, Smokey Robinson, Beyonce, Reba McEntire, and others. In February, 2010, he sang in the giant re-recording of “We are the World,” a benefit for victims of the Haiti earthquake that recruited Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion as participants.
During a telephone interview from his home in south Florida I ask about his coaching. “No one coaches me about interviews or performances,” he says. “I have fun and my Dad does the rest.”
Ethan is 10 years old.
His father, Gene, used to run a computer company. Now, he manages Ethan. “It’s full time job,” Gene says.
The young Bortnick appears on Sunday, April 10, in New Brunswick’s State Theater. The concert is at 3 p.m., “so kids can come and don’t have to worry about going to bed,” Bortnick says. “Basically we’re just going to party.”
The New Brunswick performance concludes an 18-city benefit tour that began in Naperville, Illinois, in January. Tour sponsor RE/MAX, the global real estate company, has raised more than $100 million since 1992 for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
Bortnick is particularly interested in supporting children’s hospitals. As a baby his younger brother, Nathan, now five, was treated at Miami Children’s Hospital for a life-threatening heart problem.
Bortnick has raised nearly $30 million for various charities.
Saying he plans his programming at the last minute is an understatement. “I decide what to play the day of the program,” he says. “If something is wrong, or I don’t feel it’s the right thing, I change the program. Like if I sang a lot in one concert, I will do a classical piece at the next program instead.”
As a composer, Bortnick depends on his memory, rather than writing out his compositions by hand or using music-writing software. “I just think of it in my brain,” he says, “then I just remember what to play.”
When his parents refused to give him piano lessons while he was still in diapers, Bortnick busied himself by playing the tunes from his “Baby Einstein” CDs on a toy piano. By the time he was three, his parents were convinced that lessons would be a good idea. By five, their son was composing.
Gene Bortnick says that the family is not musical. “We didn’t have a piano at home,” he says. “The only thing we used to do was dance. I had a keyboard in the garage, and I pulled it out for Ethan.”
The older Bortnick came to the United States from the Ukraine at six. His wife, Hannah, is also from the Ukraine. With their two sons they appear to make up a fairly standard American family. The parents have taught the children a smattering of Russian. The default language at home is English.
Pianist Ethan says, “I like taking care of my brother. I love teaching him and helping him with his pre-K homework, which is basically coloring. I try to help him with reading. I play games with him, and we go on the computer.”
Nathan doesn’t attend many of his brother’s concerts. “It can be a long trip,” Bortnick says. “He comes when they’re around Florida.”
Until Bortnick was six, he attended a Montessori school, where the prevailing philosophy allows children to pursue their own interests. He is a fourth-grader at Hochberg Preparatory School in Aventura, Florida. The school allows him to be absent when he has engagements as a performer but expects him to keep up with his school work.
According to Bortnick, he has ample contacts with his contemporaries. “I hang out with people my age all the time,” he says, “my younger cousins, my older cousins, and my brother. We play soccer, and do all kinds of things.”
A favorite website is www.kidzbop.com, the diversified child-driven portal. “I have about a million friends. [His father Gene estimates about 980,000.] I chat with the kids all day. Kidzbop shows videos, has contests, pictures, and makes CDs. There’s a lot of pop music that has bad words, but when that happens, they switch to another word.”
He likes to draw and to play video games. He likes eating; goat cheese salad is a favorite dish. “I’m just a regular kid,” he says. “We need to stay humble.”
Although for a time Bortnick thought he might like to become a zookeeper, he has now decided to keep his options open. “When I grow up I’ll think about what I want to be,” this 10-year-old says.
Bortnick’s pressing affairs now are his school and his piano studies. He works with two piano teachers: Ludmila Vaserstein, his original piano teacher, and Dr. Irena Kofman, who teaches at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The two collaborate on his musical education. He studies with Vaserstein, who lives only about 20 minutes away, three to four times a week and with Kofman, who specializes in child prodigies, about twice a month.
I spoke with Bortnick just before he left home for a lesson on Beethoven’s “Pathetique Sonata” with Vaserstein. “It’s hard,” he says, “but when I learn it, it will be really fun.” About a year ago his hands grew large enough to reach an octave.
Bortnick steers clear of competitions at the moment. “I’m not into competitions,” he says. “I used to do a lot of them. One day I finished a competition four or five years ago, and I started crying. My dad asked me why since I had won first prize. I told him that I’m taking away prizes from the other kids. The girl who won second place had a mother who pushed her; she practiced eight hours a day. I don’t practice that much, about one hour a day. I don’t think it’s fair for me to compete with kids who have to practice eight or nine hours every day.”
He attends concerts, including rock and pop concerts. He mentions Elton John, Billy Joel, and Black Eyed Peas. “I just love all of their music,” he says. His official biography mentions Smokey Robinson, Celine Dion, Beyonce, and Reba McEntire as among his favorites. I am surprised by the sultriness of some of his preferred performers.
About standard classical fare, he says, “I think we went to a couple of classical concerts.”
At his own concerts, Bortnick enjoys the question-and-answer segment. He reports that certain questions recur: How did you start piano? What do you eat for breakfast? How much do you practice? “A lot of girls,” he notes, “ask ‘What was it like performing with Justin Bieber?’” For readers who may not be tuned into pop music Bieber is the 17-year-old Canadian heartthrob with the imposing international career and a current autobiographical feature film “Never Say Never.”
Our conversation seems as if it could continue for a very long time if Bortnick didn’t have to leave for his scheduled piano lesson. We seem to understand each other. I ask if I can come backstage after his concert. “Sure,” Bortnick says. “Even before.”
Ethan Bortnick, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Sunday, April 10, 3 p.m. Young pianist and composer offers pop and classical music with his musical time machine. $20 to $35. All ages welcome. Rescheduled from October 10, 2010. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.