The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

“…mit grosser Wildheit” (with great ferocity)

In 1902, Rainer Maria Rilke went to the zoo and wrote about a panther pacing in his cage. Though Rilke’s panther has a “great will,” so long as he’s trapped, the desires that exist deep in his limbs can never be realized. There are moments when one can see the tension in the panther’s body and his eyes dilate with memories of freedom—reminders of the elegance and ferociousness of a liberated panther, reminders of what could be.

Tonight, four us—all men—went to see Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 played by the Hong Kong Baptist University Orchestra. Nearly every week, a group us guys goes to a classical music concert, and as we teach ourselves about the music, we bond over our shared experiences. I’ve dubbed us “the Mahler Men,” and I had high hopes for this concert.

Written in the two decades before Rilke’s poem, Mahler’s first symphony is full of instructions that could describe Rilke’s pacing panther—”dragging like a sound of nature,” “solemn and measured”—as well as possible descriptions of an uncaged panther: “tempestuous,” “vigorous,” “with great ferocity.”

But at this performance the panther never escaped. Like the poem, there were moments of tension, and there were places where I could see great ferocity. Though there were a few missteps notably in a bass solo and in the brass section, what really separated this performance from an inspiring, professional one was the inability to let the cat out.

Unlike Rilke’s panther, who never tried to leave the cage, the orchestra attempted to free the music. But to play with great ferocity doesn’t just mean to play loudly, one has to play fearlessly.

Sure, it was a disappointing concert, but it was also the first classical concert where I could confidently point to specific moments and aspects of the performance that should have been better. I actually knew when they messed up. Oddly, it felt good. It’s exciting to have proof that you’re learning. You don’t need to be an expert to enjoy classical music, but it’s fun to know that the contrabassoon player had a great performance. I mean it’s cool enough just to know what a contrabassoon is.

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