William H. Cernota, Cello
Hometown: Berwyn, Illinois
Joined Lyric Orchestra in 1982
Education: University of Chicago: BA Biology, BA Ideas & Methods (Philosophy with an outside discipline); University of Illinois at Chicago: Master of Engineering (Bioinformatics); Aspen Summer Music School on scholarship; Chicago Civic Orchestra as Principal Cellist; private cello lessons with Gordon Ludtke, Alois Trnka, Raya Garbousova, Frank Miller, Karl Fruh, and Daniel Morganstern
What are your most memorable performances?
Playing my first Ring Cycle under Zubin Mehta was incredible; the Lyric Opera Orchestra rose to the level of his conducting, the production was magnificent, and the cello section was sitting against the pit railing so we could glance up and actually see some of the action. Over a period of 14 years, I performed as a substitute with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on national and international tours under the baton of Sir Georg Solti. Earlier in my career, I performed the solo cello part to Strauss’s Don Quixote with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and two of Witold Lutoslawski’s works for cello and piano on stage at Orchestra Hall in the presence of the composer. More recently I have enjoyed performing annual live broadcast recitals on WFMT with Lyric Opera Assistant Conductor and pianist, Eric Weimer.
Why did you choose your instrument?
As a fourth grader, I wanted to play a shiny, loud, brass instrument. At musical instrument night, the Band and Orchestra Director said my overbite precluded trumpet but trombone would work. I barely noticed a dusty (rosin was unknown to me) scratched up cello sitting on its beat-up sides, and I left for the evening thinking I would become a trombonist. Unbeknownst to me, my mother obtained the director’s home phone number and called him later that night in my presence: “I think Bill would like to play the cello,” she said strongly with me resisting almost as strongly in the background. To this day I’m not sure where her “mother’s intuition” came from, but she could not have been more correct. She made sure I heard Janos Starker solo with the Grant Park Orchestra. She also took me to the New York Philharmonic with a young Leonard Bernstein conducting, and to see fellow Czech and Berwynite ballet dancer John Kriza perform Copland’s Billy the Kid with American Ballet Theatre at the Civic Opera House. My father helped map out my academic career. Ultimately I was able to play brass instruments. I was a volunteer with the Peace Corps for three years (1969 to 1972) in Sierra Leone, West Africa. There I conducted a secondary school concert and marching band every day after completing my biology teaching and performed on brass instruments while marching with my students.
Outside of the pit:
Since 1994 I have served on the Lyric Opera Orchestra Members Committee and for 21 of those years as Committee Chair. The Committee along with the Chicago Federation of Musicians Union is responsible for negotiating our contract. During the contract negotiations of 2006, the parties engaged as mediator, Judge Abner J. Mikva who by then had served prominently in all three branches of our government. After our first session, we recessed and the Committee asked me if I had noticed anything about his cufflinks—not really what I was focusing on. They bore the Presidential Seal from his time as White House Counsel to Bill Clinton. This moment was one of the pinnacles of my service to the Orchestra.
In addition to my work on the orchestra committee and as an example of the Lyric Orchestra's strong community outreach initiatives, I have performed as Principal Cellist in the Southern Illinois Music Festival since 2012. Starting in Carbondale this organization brings music to the entire southern quarter of Illinois through free run-out concerts during May and June.
There are three facets to my life:
The search for truth in biological research, the pursuit of communal good (my work as Committee Chair in the Orchestra), and the creation of beauty through music. Therefore a favorite quote of mine is “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace…Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order and leads to all that is good, true, and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless, dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”