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UNNC student brings first pipe organ to Ningbo

justin berg

Justin Berg

Justin Berg, a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) recently held the premiere concert for a 110 year-old pipe organ from the United States. Around 600 people attended the concert at Ningbo’s Tianyi Catholic Church, most of them hearing this musical instrument for the first time.

The new organ is presently the only one in Ningbo and is extremely very rare for the whole of Zhejiang Province. When Justin first arrived in China over a decade ago, he noticed that the organ was not a common musical instrument in the country. Having been a professional organist for 33 years, he felt bereft and therefore set himself the goal of bringing an organ to Ningbo.

In December 2017, he chanced upon an online advertisement for the sale of an organ back in the United States. At more than four meters high and with exactly 800 pipes, the organ, though not one of the largest, was still a near-perfect match for Justin’s expectations.

The organ was located in the soon-to-be-demolished St. James Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. When Justin approached the parish, the priest there declined payment and offered the organ as a gift. The only proviso was that it was to be dismantled and removed from the church within three weeks.

Cue Justin’s hectic search for an experienced organ builder who could quickly dismantle and ship the organ from the US.

After the organ finally arrived in China, Justin faced yet another difficulty – reassembling it! As an instrument, the organ is known for its mechanical complexity. What added to the task was that some pipes had either gone missing or had been flattened in transit.

For Justin, the clock was ticking relentlessly towards the organ’s scheduled Ningbo premiere. However, after 22 consecutive days of work (18 hours per day), the organ was completed just in time. Halbert Gober, a master organ builder that Justin had invited to Ningbo for the rebuilding project, later reflected that it would be an “adventure” even if he were back home in the US.

At the premiere concert, Dr. Craig Cramer, professor of organ at the University of Notre Dame, performed a piece of music commissioned especially for this occasion. Entitled “Peaceful Waves” (the literal meaning of Ningbo), it was composed by the renowned Dutch composer Ad Wammes.

“I believe this may be the first new composition for an organ in China by an international composer,” Justin commented. “This organ will connect people in unique ways.”

At the premiere, Dr. Cramer also stated that the new organ could be a cultural bridge between the US and China. “Two cultures can meet in this very old instrument,” he said. “The organ speaks a universal language and people can relate to the sound because it’s so beautiful and engaging. It’s so colorful.”

Surviving near-fatal damage, the organ is just now embarking on its second life in Ningbo. So far more than a thousand people have visited the church to hear its music in person. But Justin’s plans extend far beyond the Ningbo organ. As well as giving free organ concerts, he is also in contact with musical museums around China, finding opportunities for collaborating with, and educating the next generation of pipe organists.

With an organ finally in his adopted home town after all these years, Justin aims to continue promoting the organ and its music throughout China.

Originally from Michigan, US, Justin Berg is presently a PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics at UNNC, where he is researching the intersections of language and music.

Learn more about Justin Berg.

Posted on 28 December 2018