The hardest working man in choir business
Paly senior honored for his singing at nationwide choir festival
Nathan Wilen doesn't get stage fright.
Wilen, a senior at Palo Alto High School and a tenor in the Paly choir, said he is "lucky to have been performing enough that the audience isn't that big of a deal ... I just get up on stage and sing."
He will have many opportunities to do just that later this month when the Paly concert choir attends the National Youth Choral Festival in San Francisco along with 11 other high school choirs from across the country. The San Francisco men's choir Chanticleer will host the festival, hold clinics for the student singers and perform with the groups in a festival concert on March 29.
Wilen will also sing in a small honor chorus at the festival, and is one of three young singers chosen to take a master class from the renowned mezzo-sopranos Frederica von Stade and Zheng Cao, who will also perform at the concert.
"It's easily going to be the biggest thing I've ever done," he said.
The master-class students will each sing one song for von Stade and Cao, who will then critique the performances. Wilen said he will probably perform "Lachen und Weinen," a "lied" — German for "song" and a common Romantic-era form — by Franz Schubert.
During a recent interview with the Weekly, Wilen sang "Lachen und Weinen" in his Palo Alto home. The song was pleasant and sprightly, with several tricky jumps and extended notes. His voice was clear, bright and assured — and he'd had no time to warm up.
Wilen's voice and musical versatility make him "a college music teacher's dream," Paly choir director Michael Najar said. Wilen was recently accepted to Chapman University and is still waiting to hear from several other colleges. He plans to major in vocal performance, he said.
"He's a tremendous musician. He's incredibly sensitive to the music around him, but he still applies his own touch to it," Najar said.
Singing in the San Mateo boys' choir Ragazzi, as Wilen has done since age 8, improved his musicianship, he said. The group teaches its members music theory from a young age.
Genetics seem to have contributed to Wilen's musical sensibilities as well. One brother, Henry, plays the violin and mandolin and sings in Ragazzi. His youngest brother, Jesse, plays the piano, and his mother, Stefanie, plays the piano and flute.
Wilen also sings with Peninsula Teen Opera and the jazz choir Top Shelf. He estimates that he has sung in 16 concerts — eight with Ragazzi, "four or five" with Paly and two each with Peninsula Teen Opera and Top Shelf — since August.
Wilen has also somehow found the time to pick up the piano and the guitar, start an a cappella group with three other choir members and act in two school plays. Yet he still wants to accomplish more.
"I have a friend, Axel Mansoor, who plays guitar. ... We've been thinking about writing some stuff for guitar and voice, for two guitars," he said.
He wants to improve his classical repertoire as well.
"I would love to someday sing 'Ah, mes amis' from (the opera) 'Daughter of the Regiment.' ... I don't want to speak for all tenors, but for me, it seems to be one of the holy grails for the light tenor," he said.
Wilen's favorite operas are Mozart's "Magic Flute" and "Marriage of Figaro," and Puccini's "La Boheme," he said.
"I (also) love singing Schubert 'lieder' ... if I had to pick a favorite piece of music, I might have to go with 'Du bist die Ruh' by Schubert," he said.
When asked why he likes classical music, Wilen said: "I just love the emotions it can capture, and the music itself. ... I find myself wondering what people are going to be listening to in 400 years.
"Is it going to be 'Bohemian Rhapsody,'" he asked, gesturing at the door, through which that song could be heard playing in the next room, "or is it going to be 'Daughter of the Regiment'?"
Still, Wilen said he enjoys electronic music and classic rock as well.
'I've been rediscovering the Doobie Brothers. I like 'Long Train Running' — it's my ring tone right now," he said.
He paused. "Except I have the Mozart Requiem 'Dies Irae' for my parents," he added with a laugh, referring to a rather ominous section of Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor.
Wilen said many of his friends either already enjoy classical music or are willing to learn about it. He recently convinced some of them to buy standing-room tickets to the San Francisco Opera's production of Verdi's "La Traviata."
"They loved it ... they hadn't been to much opera," he said.
The master class at the National Youth Choral Festival is open to the public, so Wilen will probably sing — and be critiqued — while the rest of the festival attendees watch. He said he is only slightly anxious for now but "the nerves will come."
Performing for professional opera singers would test the composure of any young singer, but if Wilen can give a polished impromptu performance for the press, he may have no problem.
What: Nathan Wilen and the Paly concert choir sing in Chanticleer's National Youth Chorus Festival.
Where: Davies Symphony Hall at 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: March 29 at 8 p.m.
Info: For tickets, go to www.chanticleer.org.