Their second homeland
In a minefield of politics, the Ictus ensemble from Belgium quietly manages to promote classical music on both sides of the border.
Almost secretly, without a lot of flag-waving, the Belgian Ictus ensemble for contemporary music - three instrumentalists who are among the best in their field and the international composer Georges Aperghishas - has been giving master classes and concerts for children and students in Israel and the Palestinian Authority for three years now. Tonight they will play a final concert of modern music at the Clermont Auditorium at Tel Aviv University, tonight at 6:30 P.M. after a busy week.
The ensemble returned this week for the 11th time to work with composition students at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and to teach and give master classes to students in Nazareth and Bethlehem. Unlike other groups of "do-gooder" artists, explains ensemble director Lukas Pairon, the members of Ictus do not confine themselves to a one-time expression of solidarity with the peoples of the region. "Our intention is not to establish `musicians without borders,' but rather to devote ourselves to active field work - in one place, over a prolonged period and with a high frequency. An intimate acquaintance has already developed between the musicians and many children and students, Israelis and Palestinians, in the workshops and not just from concerts. This is my aim."
The status of the Ictus ensemble in Europe is similar to that of other famous contemporary music ensembles. It is invited to festivals with Intercontemporain from Paris and the Ensemble Moderne from Cologne, it has already issued 10 discs of works within a broad stylistic spectrum, and it serves as the house ensemble of the Opera de Lille.
"Brussels was one of the first meeting places of Israeli and Palestinians before Oslo," says Pairon, "and to a large extent the inspiration comes from that. I find that Europe is anti-Israeli and people ask me why I'm going to Israel, why I have chosen to be active there instead of boycotting it. But our project in its essence is opposed to a boycott. I don't believe in an intellectual and cultural boycott: Anyone who is thinking about peace and wants to achieve it has to speak, to be in touch - this is the only way."
Pairon, 46, studied philosophy, education and political science in Switzerland and at the University of Paris and worked in the field of adult education, among other things on a UNESCO project for teaching reading and writing. With time, he moved into the arts management field, gathered young artists around himself and when Ictus was established in 1994, he was appointed its first director.
"Israel and Palestine have become our second homeland," he says, "and over time we have become your ambassadors: When I came here for the first time, at the beginning of 2002, I was interviewed every day for the Belgian classical music station, and I succeed in making the situation real for the Europeans. For many of them the reality here is abstract, without nuances and fine discriminations, and the terrible reports that flow out of the region cause them to shut themselves off in the best case - and usually to draw a prejudicial and distorted picture of what is happening.
"Ictus and its members are famous in Belgium, and therefore my descriptions carried weight," he continues. "And when in one of the conversations I mentioned that the Palestinians lacked musical instruments, I received dozens of instruments at my home address. From this was born the initiative for the campaign to collect instruments for needy places around the world." The large collection project, for which Pairon initiated the establishment of a special foundation headed by Belgium's leading musicians - among them Philippe Herewege, Gerard Morier and Jose van Damm - was announced a few months ago and ended two weeks ago. "One hundred collection points in Belgium yielded about 400 instruments," says Pairon, "among them 30 pianos and dozens of string instruments, some of them excellent and some of them of real value. I discovered that donating musical instruments is something very personal. It isn't money that people are giving, or something they are getting rid of. Behind every instrument there is a story. Sometimes it belonged to a family member who played it and is no longer alive, and its owner is always emotionally connected to it and it is hard to separate from it. Therefore anyone who donates an instrument imagines the person who will play it; thus, hundreds of people are now taking the trip in their imagination from Belgium to Palestine and Israel, connecting to the children who are playing instruments that were once theirs."
The concert program for the members of the Ictus ensemble, a clarinetist and bass clarinetist, a cellist and a pianist, includes works by the Greek Iannis Xenakis, the Japanese Toshio Hosokawa, the Finnish Kaija Saariho and the Greek-French Georges Aperghis.
When the Ictus ensemble stays here, its members never live in hotels but are hosted in the private homes of their partners, mostly educators; on both sides of the border they conduct their work independently.
"I am not a peace politician, and my aim is not to bring Israelis and Palestinians or Jews and Arabs closer together," says Pairon. "We are not pushing for cooperation, like many Europeans who think that they always need to intervene and bring the sides closer together at any price. We don't. We work in both places, with both sides, from within the independence of each of the sides, without promoting an ideology of coexistence. But when the day comes, when peace does arrive, we will be in an excellent position to start doing this."