The natural splendour of Golden Gate inspired the talented musicians at the 2019 Golden Gate Classics to even greater heights. By Sandy Levenstein

Brandwag Buttress

The beautiful Brandwag Buttress is the backdrop for the Golden Gate Classics. Photos by Sandy Levenstein

The mountains of Golden Gate Highlands National Park surround me. The slopes are all shades of brown, grey and green, the mountains look like they have been painted with a fine brush against a blue and white sky. Shadows blanket some parts while others are directly hit by the sun, the sandstone glowing gold. Jackals cry out in the distance… and are answered by the stirring sounds of a 40-piece orchestra.

I am at the 2019 Golden Gate Classics, a music festival held over two days at the national park on the doorstep of Clarens. The first night is all about jazz, the second classical music.

The weekend kicked off the night before with a performance by the Bokani Dyer Trio, winners of the SAMA for Best Jazz Album, and songstress Thandi Ntuli. Unfortunately, a great loss to me as I wasn’t able to attend. I am told they were just breathtaking, with the ability to pull the audience straight into their world of jazz.

Drawing inspiration from nature

On the second night, there is a buzz in the air; you can’t miss the sense of anticipation. Everyone is seated as we are enveloped by darkness. The stage lights up purple and red, and so it begins. Maestro Kutlwano Masote, our conductor, proves to be a great entertainer. He not only accomplishes what he sets out to do, which is to “bring to life the music and inspire those around him”, but he also captivates us, his audience, with his ability to tell stories. Every piece of music is introduced with the story behind it.

Golden Gate Classics stage

The stage is set for the 2019 Golden Gate Classics.

Overlooked by the iconic Brandwag Buttress, the stage sees Sibongile Khumalo, South Africa’s first lady of song, joined by rising star Zandile Mzazi and members of the TUT Vocal Art Chorus. Sibongile is a lady with massive energy; you actually feel her take to the stage. I find myself holding my breath many times, I suspect in an attempt to stop time.

Earlier I asked Sibongile what is special about performing in nature. “It is the sense that I, that all of us are very small, minuscule particles of this larger universe. It makes me want to be better at whatever I am doing because there is a higher being who designed this. Who am I to not want to put my best foot forward?”

For conductor Kutlwano, performing at Golden Gate is a reverential experience. In African culture, the mountains are where the ancestors reside after their time on earth. “In nature, you feel closer to who you are, closer to God.”

Sibongile Khumalo Kutlwano Masote

South Africa’s first lady of song, Sibongile Khumalo, joined conductor Kutlwano Masote in performing at the 2019 Golden Gate Classics.

In service of music and society

The halfway mark sees a break to eat. The food is not only delicious, it is made to be enjoyed by the eyes. Everything about this event is detail-oriented, from the flowers on the tables to the blankets (to shield us from the chilly night air) on the fold-out chairs we can take home. The guests are dressed for the occasion: outfits in amazing African patterns rub shoulders with suits and bow ties. After the break we are back in our seats, tummies pleasantly full, ready for round two.

Soprano Zandile Mzazi lights up the stage in a red dress. She is just remarkable. I can’t help wondering how it is even possible to hit the notes she does. Both Sibongile Khumalo and Kutlwano Masote made a point of saying that we need to support South African talent, to nurture young performers in particular. A brilliant example of this talent is the TUT Vocal Art Chorus, who perform songs like Queen’s “We Are The Champions” with spine-tingling power. These youngsters are only at the very beginning of their journey.

Guests fall under the spell of the talented perfomers.

“Let’s talk about what it means to be a part of South African music, to be South African, to be building something amazing in this country,” I asked Kutlwano before the concert. “We do this in service of music and improving everything about society,” he said. “Building this particular festival, the Golden Gate Classics, with the people that I work with and the SANParks team, has been one of the privileges of my professional life.

The event fits in perfectly with the mission of South African National Parks to develop, expand, manage and promote a system of sustainable national parks protecting both natural and cultural heritage assets. This is the third year that SANParks has hosted the Golden Gate Classics with Total along for the journey – not only as the main sponsor of this year’s event, but as a long-time supporter of conservation.

As the evening winds to a close, my ears catch the words “spiritual experience, overwhelming, healing, remarkable”. Kutlwano said that the beauty of being a performer is to help people journey, heal and celebrate, because that is what music is written for. So well said and a perfect way to sum up my experience at the 2019 Golden Gate Classics.