The gorgeous sandstone mountains of Golden Gate Highlands National Park were the backdrop for the 2018 Golden Gate Classics. With stirring jazz anthems and uplifting arias, this performance of music in the mountains was good for the soul, says Lesley Stones.

There’s something quite magical about sitting under the stars in the middle of nature, listening to the pure sounds of classical music.

The sorrowful moan of a cello, the sweep of violins, and the spine-tingling voice of a tenor. You take another sip of wine, make your blanket cocoon a little cosier and think what a wonderful country we live in.

The 2018 Golden Gate Classics, the second such annual event organised by SANParks, provided a wonderful weekend of music and nature in Golden Gate Highlands National Park. A jazz concert on the Friday starred pianist Nduduzo Makhathini with his band, joined by smooth and sultry singer Lindiwe Maxolo. On the Saturday, Free State Symphony Orchestra performed with Gauteng Opera and guest singers Aubrey Lodewyk and Caroline Nkwe.

Soprano Caroline Nkwe performed with the Free State Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Kutlwano Masote.

An extraordinary feat

The Golden Gate Classics is a logistical triumph. There’s a full stage to erect with a sound and lighting rig, a marquee housing another stage and settees for the jazz evening, and shuttle buses to run. Plus food to cook for a few hundred guests, with food stations serving a choice of dishes including bunny chow, and fish and chips in paper cones.

Sponsorship from Total, FNB and Classic FM saw the guests receive a bottle of wine, rain coats – which we thankfully didn’t need – blankets, which some of us did, and a camp chair to sit on the lawn in comfort.

On the Saturday, activity options included a guided hike or horse ride through beautiful scenery to Cathedral Cave, where a climb up, around and down the rocks is memorable for the sturdy but slightly scary ladders attached to sheer cliff faces. Quad biking, golf or ziplining can be arranged from nearby Clarens, and this arty town is an attraction in itself.

This is the best music product in the country. It’s lovely to do something where the mountains are singing to the sound of operatic music. – Kutlwano Masote

The concerts were launched last year as a way for SANParks to attract new young visitors who come for the music and hopefully return for the scenery. A few things have been tweaked since last year, with the biggest difference being staging both the Friday and Saturday concerts in the grounds of the Golden Gate Hotel. In the inaugural year the jazz concert was held at a marquee in the park’s Basotho Cultural Village, almost doubling the intense logistics.

One element that can’t be influenced is the weather, and in the late afternoon of the main event, ominous clouds and a brisk wind gave everyone the jitters. Then hailstones pelted down and turned the ground white. Amazingly it was all over in five minutes, and the show could go on.

Also read: Singing in the rain at the 2017 Golden Classics

An orchestra in the mountains

Conductor Kutlwano Masote dubbed it an evening of ‘popera’, with some popular highlights from operas including La Traviata, The Barber of Seville and La Bohème, and classics like “Time To Say Goodbye”, made famous by Andrea Bocelli. The pure voices of 13 opera singers in front of the live orchestra was utterly superb. “This is the best music product in the country,” Masote said. “It’s lovely to do something where the mountains are singing to the sound of operatic music.”

Gauteng opera CEO Arnold Cloete says that while performing outside poses challenges, it also brings great rewards. “How many times will we have a chance to sing opera with an orchestra in the mountains?”


Gauteng Opera CEO Arnold Cloete agreed. “When Kutlwano invited us, I said how many times will we have the chance to sing opera with an orchestra in the mountains, so we immediately said we’d love to do it. Performing outdoors is sometimes a little harder, but it’s always a wonderful experience. What’s so special is that Caroline, one of the guests artists, came through the ranks of Gauteng Opera, and she’s now based in Germany, and it’s wonderful to meet up with her again. Aubrey has also performed with us before so it’s almost like a family on stage.”

Jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhatini described the energy generated by the natural amphitheatre as healing. “Having these mountains around us helps us reconnect with ourselves.”

Jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini is also a healer, and says a concert in a park literally has a different vibe to a city venue. “I resonate with the idea of performing in spaces that can sing with us. African spiritual beliefs say that some of our greatest ancestors reside around the mountains, so having these mountains around us helps us reconnect with ourselves,” he said. “In terms of how sound travels there’s a particular vibration that’s generated by these natural stone amphitheatre and it’s a very special energy, it’s healing, and I’m aware of that energy when I’m playing.”

Perhaps that’s why the Golden Gate Classics is so good for the soul.