Prodigy at 6, now a superstar, Ethan Bortnick will thrill and amaze

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Ethan Bortnick will blend his wealth of talent with local choirs and choral groups next Friday and Saturday at the Rochester Opera House. (Courtesy phohto)

Ethan Bortnick began his ascension to the rarified ranks of those considered among the greatest pianists of our time at the ripe old age of 3.

"I walked up to my parents when I was 3 and asked them if I could get piano lessons and they said, 'No, it would be a waste of money.' They thought I wouldn't practice and would give it up," the now 17-year-old said on Wednesday during a telephone interview with The Rochester Voice.

"But I was convinced I wanted piano lessons," he said, adding his parents finally agreed to get him a little toy keyboard to play with.

"I started mimicking everything anytime I saw someone playing piano on TV or hearing it on radio," he said.

Soon after hearing their son's uncanny ability, they agreed to the lessons.

Now some 14 years later, Bortnick is recognized as one of the finest pianists in the world with an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as "The World's Youngest solo musician to headline his own concert tour."

That concert tour will bring him to the Rochester Opera House next Friday and Saturday where he'll perform with his own band as well as local choirs, including the Granite State Choral Society.

Among the first to recognize Bortnick's true genius were Tonight Show producers who had him on their show when he was just 6. You can find the hilarious interview with Jay Leno and hear young Bortnick's rare talent on the piano even back then on YouTube.

But even Bortnick can't explain where what seems a God-given gift comes from.

"To tell you the truth I have no clue," he said while on the phone from his home in Pembroke Pines, Fla. "We've tried to find someone in the past in our family, but can't find anything."

His current tour is in concert with PBS, which is producing another of his TV specials called "Generations of Music," which seeks to discover young talent from around the country to become part of the show.

On Friday his concert will include the naming of an area youngster who auditioned to become a part of his "Generations of Music" special.

Bortnick said the winner will perform with him on Friday night, get to represent New Hampshire for his national PBS show and get to cut a record with him, too.

"There are so many talented kids in the Rochester area and New Hampshire," Bortnick said. "And we're thankful for all the great talent."

Speaking of raw talent, there are few that can spellbind an audience like this 17-year-old superstar. At home with any genre, Bortnick will play piano and sing songs from the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Chopin, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, even Broadway show tunes.

"I can't pick a favorite genre of music," he said. "We see a lot of families, different ages. We have something for everybody. That's why we call it 'Generations of Music.'"

Bortnick enjoys giving back as much as he does playing music. So far his concerts have raised more than $50 million for charities across the globe.

"I love giving more than anything," he said. "My main goal is to give back and use this as much for good and spread a positive message."

Bortnick has spread that positive message at his many concerts around the world including South Africa, Brazil and Australia, during multiple appearances on The Tonight Show, Good Morning America and on Oprah, where he was named one of Oprah's All-Time Smartest, Most Talented Kids.

On Sunday, the day after his second Rochester concert, he'll be playing down in Boston at the Wilbur Theatre.

Bortnick said folks can expect a lot of spontaneity during the shows on Friday and Saturday.

Among the choral groups scheduled to sing are Granite State Choral Society on both Friday night and Saturday afternoon and the Portland group Pihcintu, a choir composed of refugee children, on Saturday.

Granite State Choral Society Board of Directors President Elizabeth Tonkins-Agea said the group was thrilled to be playing with Bortnick and will play several songs, including the powerful "We are the World" written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie.

As for the concert itself, expect the unexpected, said Bortnick.

"We play from a basic set, but we mix it up a lot, too," he said.

Bortnick, who attends a special private school that allows him to take some classes and tests online, said despite all the fame and celebrity he's acquired, "I'm just a normal kid" at home.

His favorite pastime when he's not playing a concert or practicing?

"I'm a huge Pokémon video game fan, anything Nintendo," he says. "And just hanging out with my friends."

For tickets to either the Friday (7:30 p.m.) or Saturday (2 p.m.) show click here.

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