From Park Avenue to the Forbidden City

Still jet-lagged. My body's convinced morning is night. My mind's still racing, thinking, processing. After so much stimulation, I'm starting to crash. I sleep like the dead.

While I'm thinking of it, here's a reminder that you can hear Eric Townell, conductor of the Rochester Oratorio Society, on this Friday's 1370 Connection Arts Friday. It's an hour-long call-in talk show starting at about 12:10 on AM 1370, hosted by Peter Iglinski. Should be a wide-ranging conversation. Listeners will be invited to ask questions and make comments at 263-WXXI. You can also hear it streaming live at

One story that might come up is that of a Rochester connection to Beijing. Here it is, in a nutshell.

In 1992, Rochester native Marjorie Relin bought a turn-of-the-century house on a corner lot on Park Avenue. She was lonely. Having been recently widowed, she didn't want to live in the big house by herself. So she called a friend, Eastman piano instructor and concert pianist Rebeccca Penneys, and asked her if she knew of any students that might like to rent a room during the school year. Rebecca recommended a Chinese woman named Ying Ying, and Marjorie arranged to meet her. Within a few hours, Marjorie told me, she knew she liked Ying Ying very much, so much so that she offered her free board during her studies at Eastman.

She is not just a pianist, Marjorie discovered. Ying Ying is a gifted soprano, with a strong, flexible voice and a warm stage presence.

"She's a quiet, strong-willed person," Marjorie says. She came to love the Chinese woman like an adopted daughter.

After finishing her piano studies at Eastman, Ying Ying married an American lawyer and moved to Hong Kong. Marjorie also got married, wedding Rochester composer Cary Ratcliff.

In 2008, more than sixteen years after Ying Ying and Marjorie first met, Rochester Oratorio Society conductor Eric Townell announced he wanted to take a portion of Ratcliff's "Ode to Common Things" to China. Marjorie mentioned Ying Ying Liu, and after hearing her sing on tape, Eric arranged for her to serve as our soloist at the Forbidden City Concert Hall.

The Chinese woman's relatives were quite excited, so much so that they mobilized their friends and family members to fill the concert hall with audience members and drum up extra publicity. To do that, they had to contact an arts reporter the Chinese way: they had to pitch the story, pay a print journalist the equivalent of between $50-100 (US), and, on top of it all, they had to take the reporter out to lunch at his favorite restaurant. Thus did an article about our concert in the Forbidden City Concert Hall appear in a Beijing newspaper.

Marjorie Relin marveled at the string of events that brought her and Ying Ying Lui together in Beijing.

"It was an amazing thing," she told me, "to meet her there and hear her sing Cary's music."
Ying Ying Liu, rehearsing with the ROS, with Cary Ratcliff in the backgroundYing Ying Liu, rehearsing with the ROS, with Cary Ratcliff in the background