Fred Sherry could be a cello-playing advertisement for life i Columbia.
"It's great to play for an audience that knows the music and -- when they don't know an individual piece -- has enough background to appreciate it," the cellist says.
Sherry is the outgoing artistic director of the world-famous Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and he's talking about audiences at -- yes, that's right -- the Columbia Festival of the Arts, where the CMSLC will be in residence from Friday through July 6.
As it does in New York and in other cities (and as it did at last year's Columbia Festival), the society will give open rehearsals before its four concerts at this year's event. Several of the well-known composers with works on the society's programs will be on hand this year, as was the case last summer.
"They [the rehearsals] were more popular in Columbia than anywhere else, including New York," Sherry says. "The people were interested in more than just seeing what musicians were like without their evening-wear uniforms on. They were really interested in dialogues with the composers and nothing can be so thrilling to a composer. Most of the composers I know fear that audiences think the only good composer is a dead one."
Most of the society's four programs will be devoted to music by Mozart, Bach, Brahms and Schumann. But there will also be significant pieces by three living composers, all of whom will be in attendance -- William Bolcom, Tobias Picker, Charles Wuorinen. Bolcom's "Songs to Dance," for piano, soprano and dancer, will receive its world premiere.
"Whether it's Brahms or Bolcom, I like music with flair," Sherry says. "The language doesn't matter so much as the composer's feeling for how the notes combine. A chord on the page must be more than merely a bunch of notes."
A mixture of new and old music for interesting combinations of instruments has been the society's way ever since it was founded in 1969 as the official chamber music arm of New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
"We're to chamber music at Lincoln Center what the New York Philharmonic is to symphonic music or what Lincoln Center Theater at the Beaumont [Theater] is to plays," Sherry says.
Now that chamber music societies exist in every major city, it seems strange to recall a time when an organization like that of Lincoln Center was a radical idea. But that was exactly the situation when the organization was founded.
"There were a lot of string quartets and piano trios, but there was very little music for mixed instruments," the 42-year-old cellist says. "Masterpieces like the Brahms Horn Trio or Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio for clarinet, viola and piano just weren't heard very often."
Charles Wadsworth -- Sherry's predecessor and the group's founding artistic director -- put together a core group of virtuoso musicians -- string players, a pianist and wind players -- all of whom were interested in playing chamber music. Not only was he able to enlist such brilliant young players as the young Sherry -- past and present members also have included the pianist Richard Goode, the clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and the Emerson String Quartet -- but he was able to persuade such stars as Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to make occasional appearances. The society helped to create a chamber music boom whose results were such that today more than 570 groups are registered with the national trade association Chamber Music America -- about one quarter of them, like the society, of mixed instrumentation.
When Wadsworth resigned and Sherry's appointment was announced two years ago, some feared that the cellist -- who was a founding member of Speculum Musicae, perhaps New York's premiere new-music group -- would turn the society into an avant-gardist's haven. The society's programming does now include more challenging new pieces than it did under Wadsworth, but it remains a repertory company for the classics.
Nevertheless, Sherry's reputation may have scared off some subscribers and when -- a little more than a week ago -- Sherry announced that he was resigning as artistic director at the end of the '91-'92 season, there was talk that he had been forced out. That speculation was immediately squelched by the society's board and by Sherry himself.
The cellist says that his decision merely expresses his desire to concentrate again on performance. In addition to playing with the society -- it presents five series of six concerts each -- he has had to screen all the new scores and tapes submitted to the society, track down out-of-the-way works for performances and put together every program.
"I have regrets about leaving -- I wanted the job so that I could play certain types of music in a certain way," Sherry says. "But I TTC felt that the administrative work was cutting in on my practice time and playing time. I thought to myself, it's great that I have this wonderful organization, but I'd rather be playing in it than running it."