photo: 1951 Hypernikon
by Don Baron '53
It was 1951, and I was walking toward the town center one day in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Many tour buses were parked in town, one with a banner reading “Gordon College Choir.” Curious, I hastened aboard and met John Keith ’54 and Grace Lambert ’52 (who later married John’s best friend, Bob Berry ’54, also a member of the choir). The rest of the choir would return soon, they said, and so I waited.
Forty enthusiastic and friendly kids arrived back and made a fuss over me—especially when they learned I was thinking of transferring to Gordon. Then Professor Charles Matheson, choir director, appeared and told me he would receive me into the choir if I transferred. The following September I was, indeed, triumphantly singing in the College Choir, mediocre baritone that I was.
Prof would incorporate at least one choir member in each section who could not read music. One such student reminisces: “I could not read a note, and had not heard of Bach, or even Handel’s Messiah. Since the repertoire had to be memorized and sung without sheet music, I was admitted on the basis of my ability to capture and reproduce accurately the long sequences of random notes that Prof used in the tryouts. It changed my life.”
The concerts on the annual Choir tour (one in the Maritime provinces, the other throughout Ontario) were wonderfully intense. We choir members were alone privileged to view Matheson’s face, his back to the audience. As we sang Pavel Chesnokov’s “Salvation Is Created,” undergirded from below by the choir’s vibrating basso profundo voices, Prof’s face betrayed the ache of a profound musician consumed by the massive theme of which we sang. We caught his anguish, responding in deep-felt harmonics that transported the entire assembly into the Mystery of the rich, Russian song. Chills ran up and down many spines.
No Choir alumnus can ever forget as we broke out into the jubilation of Edvard Grieg’s “God’s Son Has Set Me Free from Satan’s Tyranny!” Later yet, when we got into Bach’s profoundly devotional “Jesu meine freude,” we often found ourselves moved to tears—sometimes quite openly with sobs during intermission in the basement —our hearts bound together in an uncanny oneness that survived far beyond the tour. The concert was always capped off by a drained and subdued Professor Matheson’s breathless prayer as we gathered, heads bowed, around him in the basement: “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to Your name be the glory” (Psalm 115:1).
He was much more than choir director; he was a motivator, taking real interest in the lives of his choristers. Along with his musical direction, choir practice held gems of his inights into personal dignity and self-respect. And along with the choir retreats where we worked day and night, there was wonderful camaraderie: ice skating, goofing off, preparing our own meals.
After teaching voice for some years at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Charles Matheson died at age 96 of complications from a stroke. Loved by the community and churches where he and his wife, Marleta, chose to spend their twilight years, he is no less well loved and longed for by grateful Gordon College Choir alumni.
Shirley Markie ’54 and John Keith ’54 also contributed their memories as choir members.
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