Richard S. Matteson still remembers the first time he played the organ for a church service — in fact, he remembers the exact day.
It was Feb. 28, 1960, and Matteson, all of 12 years old, played the hymn “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Cohasset. He’d been taking organ lessons from the church’s music and choir director for a number of years, who around that time “told me I was ready to play,” recalled Matteson. “He said ‘Do you want to try?’”
Matteson, who today is 73 and has been the minister of music at First Congregational Church in Amherst since 2008, remembers being nervous as he sat down at the organ. But the hymn came off fine, though he played it in the key of A-flat, rather than A, the proper key. “No one noticed,” he said with a laugh.
That first stab at a public performance on the organ — “The instrument just fascinated me,” Matteson notes — marked the beginning of a career of church and public performances, choir directing and other musical leadership that has now spanned 60 years. And to mark that occasion, First Congregational parishioners secretly raised over $15,000 to establish a scholarship in Matteson’s name at his alma mater, The Hartt School, a performing arts conservatory at the University of Hartford.
The announcement of that scholarship, which took place this summer during a service that was live-streamed on the church’s YouTube channel, left the usually voluble Matteson tongue-tied, said Linda Fisher Smith, head of the church’s Music Committee and one of the organizers of the fundraising drive.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him at a loss for words,” Smith said with a laugh during a recent phone interview.
And Matteson, who spent decades teaching and performing music in the Hartford area before moving to western Massachusetts in 2006, says he was astounded that parishioners — and choir members in particular — were able to keep the matter a secret for so long.
He and Smith both figure the pandemic, which has forced the choir to rehearse virtually since March and restricted church services to an online format as well, helped keep the wraps on the fundraising drive.
“I’m basically a pretty nosy person, and under normal circumstances, it would have been tough to keep the secret from me,” said Matteson. “When they made the announcement, I was the only one who didn’t know what was going on — even my grandson knew about it.”
“I was speechless. I’ve never had this kind of honor given to me,” he added. “I had tears in my eyes. Really, I was just so touched.”
Smith said church members began thinking last year of how they might honor Matteson for his long service in music and for his work at First Congregational. “He’s been an absolutely inspiring minister of music,” she said, noting that choir membership has increased significantly during Matteson’s tenure and that “he has a wonderful way of making music speak to people.”
One early idea had been to hold a special concert at the church this spring, with invited musicians. When COVID-19 made that impossible, Smith and a core group of planners hit on the fundraising drive instead; Smith says over 70 gifts, from a congregation of about 200 people, brought in $15,600.
“I think that showed how important he’s been to us, and how well-liked he is,” she added.
Once the initial fundraising gift was announced, Matteson joined the effort to raise more, tapping sources he knows; the scholarship fund is now approaching $23,000. The goal is $25,000, which will qualify the scholarship fund at The Hartt School as an endowment and will award annual scholarships in perpetuity to students there.
Though he never taught at The Hartt School — he’s a 1973 alum — Matteson said he developed many additional ties to the conservatory during his years living and working in the Hartford area, including to other Hartt graduates. While in Hartford, he was a minister of music for different churches and a regular performer in solo organ, organ and orchestra, and two-piano concerts; he also served as an accompanist for area choral groups.
Since coming to the Valley, he’s kept a busy schedule as well, including stints as chorus director of the Community Music School of Springfield; accompanist for the South Hadley Chorale; and music director for Black Cat Theater, South Hadley’s community theater group, where he’s also president of the board.
With a laugh, Matteson said he thought he might retire at some point. But then he ended up applying to an opening at First Congregational — Smith was on the interview committee that ended up hiring him — “and now here I am, figuring out how lead chorus practice on Zoom.”
He first started taking piano lessons when he was 4; family legend, he says, is that when they came back from a wedding, he sat down at the piano at home and picked out “Here Comes the Bride.” (He says he has no memory of the incident himself.)
After that, his mother, also a musician, gave him beginning lessons on the keyboard. He later moved on to study piano and then organ at St. Stephen’s Church in Cohasset, where he also sang in the children’s choir.
The rest, as they say, is history, and Matteson now looks forward to getting back — someday — with the First Congregational chorus and congregation in-person. And when future music students at The Hartt School can benefit from a scholarship in his name, he said, “I’ll be truly honored by that. Music has been such a joy in my life — I hope it will be for others, too.”
To make a contribution to the scholarship, checks can be made out to The University of Hartford, with “Richard S. Matteson ‘73 Scholarship Fund” on the memo line. Checks may be mailed to the Office of Institutional Advancement, University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, CT 06117-0470.
Donors can also visit hartford.edu to make a donation. At the UH homepage, select the “Give” page, then select “Other,” and add “Richard S. Matteson ‘73 Scholarship Fund” in the box.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.