Gala features 8-year-old piano prodigy

Gala features 8-year-old piano prodigy

By any performer's standards, Ethan Bortnick has had an impressive career. An accomplished philanthropist who has raised millions for charities, his main claim to fame is as an internationally known concert pianist, who has shared the stage with names like Beyonc é, Smokey Robinison and Patti LaBelle. He's opened for Nelly Furtado, met notables ranging from Muhammed Ali to Bill Clinton and appeared on television in venues from Good Morning America to The Oprah Winfrey Show. He did Jay Leno's Tonight Show three times and earlier this year was the sole performer invited to give a concert to celebrate the swearing in of the 111th Congress.

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Given his extensive resume, it’s hard to believe that next week’s concert at the Westin downtown will be the performer’s first visit to St. Louis. Then again, there are a lot of places he hasn’t been.

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After all, Ethan Bortnick is only eight-years-old.

“He goes on the shows,” said Gene Bortnick, Ethan’s father. “When he’s done, he goes back to playing video games and being a kid.”

St. Louis will get its first taste of Ethan’s talents this Sunday night as part of the Lamplighter Award Celebration. The biennial event sponsored by Chabad of Greater St. Louis and Chabad on Campus, will mark the presentation of the Morris and Ann Lazaroff Lamplighter Award to two area couples, Milton and Galia Movitz and Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton and Risa Zwerling. Given since 2002, the award honors those who put “personal affairs aside and reach out to light up the lives of others.”

“The Lamplighter Award is presented to couples whose leadership is really extraordinary providing vision that allows people to see things and what’s possible in a different way,” said Rabbi Levi Landa, Chabad’s director of programming. “Especially for the Lamplighter event, which we only do once every two years, we always try to offer something exceptional in terms of the choice of the entertainment.”

Exceptional is a common description for Ethan, a child prodigy whose skills on the piano have become famous through television appearances and live concerts around the country. Recently, he even performed for a sold out crowd in Australia.

“We noticed it at around three years old,” Gene Bortnick said. “He started mimicking everything he heard on TV. He had a little keyboard and he would even do the commercials. The biggest thing that flipped us out, he was mimicking a Mozart piece that he was listening to.”

By age four he was taking piano lessons, expanding his repertoire to include jazz, pop, classical and everything in between. Then came TV appearances and concerts. Soon the youngster was playing for as many as 20,000 people at a time.

“When he’s on that stage, you’d never believe he’s eight years old,” Bortnick said. “He controls the audience. He manages them.”

That doesn’t mean Ethan likes to show off, however. His father recalls well when Ethan appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. As the host raved over his abilities to do things from performing complex classical pieces to playing music from an upside-down sheet, Ethan interrupted.

“He finally said, ‘You know Oprah, I can do all this but we really all need to stay humble,'” Bortnick laughed. “I thought the entire audience would just die. One of the people that works with us met her again, and Oprah to this day, says, ‘Oh, yes, is he still staying humble?’ She had countless guests but she’ll never forget that.”

Ethan’s magnetic personality seems to work one-on-one as well as on large crowds. When the young pianist played for Congress, the Bortnicks were warned by advance staff that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have time only for a brief photo op and then she’d have to depart.

“It was pretty wild,” Bortnick said. “Afterwards, Pelosi was just so shocked with what he did, she took him around to every congressman saying, ‘meet Ethan, meet Ethan’ for about an hour and a half.”

Ethan’s work also has a philanthropic side. His younger brother Nathan was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare but serious cardiovascular defect that leaves sufferers with only two properly functioning heart chambers. After two surgeries on his sibling, Ethan performed in a benefit for the hospital that also included other famous names like Gloria Estefan. They raised more than $12 million for Miami Children’s Hospital. Today, Ethan does performances to benefit a wide array of charities, many focused on children’s issues.

Ethan, who attends a Jewish day school in Aventura, Florida, has also become more involved with doing Judaic events lately, often in conjunction with Chabad, including a recent Hanukkah party for 10,000 people. Sunday’s concert is scheduled to be about 45 minutes long featuring a variety of music and will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the performer.

As word about Ethan’s abilities continues to spread, he’s scheduled a 25-city tour. That will mean meeting a lot of new people, but Ethan doesn’t seem to mind.

“I like bigger audiences because I love performing and when there’s a bigger audience, I can make more people happy,” Ethan said. “I want a lot of people because I want to make a lot of people happy.”

Ethan Bortnick

WHO: Eight-year-old piano prodigy is the featured entertainer at Chabad of Greater St. Louis’ annual Lamplighter Award gala, honoring Risa Zwerling and Mark Wrighton and Galia and Milton Movitz

WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 22 (Reception at 5:30 p.m., dinner at 6:30 p.m.)

WHERE: The Westin St. Louis, 811 Spruce Street

MORE INFO: For more information on the upcoming Chabad event or the Lamplighter Award gala, visit www.showmechabad.com/lamplighter. For more about Ethan, visit

www.ethanbortnick.com.