Twenty years ago, a night of live orchestral music beneath the stars took place at the Country Club Johannesburg. ‘Blankets, Baskets, and Bowties’ was the name of the event and it promised an evening of truly innovative Afro-symphonic entertainment. ‘In the event of rain, the concert will be held on Monday,’ read the RMB invitation. As it turns out, it did rain, and the event did end up taking place on the Monday night.
‘The fact that our clients showed up on a Monday night told us that this was the start of something special,’ says RMB co-founder Laurie Dippenaar.
RMB Starlight Classics was born when Dippenaar was approached by conductor Richard Cock for funding for the National Symphony Orchestra. Dippenaar, always on the lookout for the sustainable business case, suggested that RMB rather create a musical event for clients that would give musicians the opportunity to perform for an expanded audience and be rewarded for their talents.
‘I had recently attended an orchestral concert where they had performed the 1812 Overture,’ says Dippenaar. ‘I was moved, listening to such powerful music in great company, so I said we’d sponsor an outdoor concert at the Country Club as long as they included the 1812 Overture in the programme. Over the years, they’ve played it quite often and it never ceases to inspire me.’
It’s not just contemporary performances of classical greats that have entertained audiences over two decades. To date, Starlight Classics has featured acts such as Johnny Clegg, Karen Zoid, Hugh Masekela, the Mzansi Youth Choir, Pretty Yende, Freshly Ground with Zolani Mahola, and the Drakensberg Boys Choir. International acts have included Katherine Jenkins, Joshua Bell, Patrizio Buanne, Trio NeuKlang and many others.
Today, Starlight Classics takes place twice annually – at Country Club Johannesburg and on the Vergelegen Wine Estate just outside Cape Town.
For the Vergelegen concert this month, the line-up is as diverse and exciting as ever. Musicians set to perform are popstars Lira, Riana Nel and Craig Lucas; opera singers Sunnyboy Dladla and Cecilia Rangwanasha; young superstars Paxton Fielies and Qden Blaauw, and international guest stars Amira Willighagen and jazz violinist Tim Kliphuis.
As the musical director, Maestro Richard Cock, with the passionate interest and support of Dippenaar and RMB, has created an almost cult-like following for this unique event.
‘When you look out from the podium and see 4 000 people lighting candles and “sharing brightness”, you can’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of positivity around the potential for South Africa’s future,’ says Cock. ‘A particularly touching memory for me was when Hugh Masekela performed “Stimela” with the Mzansi Youth Choir. The way he guided and mentored the choir through rehearsals – even during the breaks – was typical of Bra Hugh’s generous spirit and connectivity with young people.’
When you look out from the podium and see 4 000 people lighting candles and ‘sharing brightness’, you can’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of positivity around the potential for South Africa’s future
While Starlight Classics was the brainchild of both RMB and Cock, Dippenaar explains that it couldn’t have grown into the 20-year-old event that it is today without the creative resilience of RMB’s Carolynne Waterhouse and the bank’s legendary events team, who never fail to delight demanding clients with their meticulous attention to the detail.
Waterhouse has helped build the Starlight Classics brand from its rainy, but resolute inception into an annual social highlight. While collaborating with an outstanding team over the years has ensured that the concerts are a resounding success, Waterhouse says Laurie Dippenaar and his wife Estelle’s consistent faith and conviction in the Starlight formula has kept her and the team energised and inspired along the way.
‘You can’t develop anything like this without someone encouraging you and believing in the product while also giving you the complete freedom to make it work. What Laurie always did was urge us to build something far more than a one-day-wonder,’ says Waterhouse. ‘We are proud of the huge success of Starlight Classics and more so how the audience leaves the concert on such a positive note, re-energised to tackle the daily magic and madness that is South Africa. I am told that local performers regard an engagement at Starlight Classics as a career milestone, while many musicians view performing on the Starlight Stage as a bucket list item.
We are proud of the huge success of Starlight Classics and more so how the audience leaves the concert on such a positive note, re-energised to tackle the daily magic and madness that is South Africa
‘The cornerstone of RMB has always been outstanding talent, and events like Starlight Classics help us to showcase and set up musical talent for success, while bringing people together through music.’
Apart from RMB clients, the event is also attended by thousands of members of the public each year, with tickets being sold out weeks in advance. KykNet and Mnet recently started screening 60-minute features of the concerts, helping to bring the essence of live Afro-symphonic music into the homes of thousands of South Africans.
Dippenaar explains that, in line with RMB’s business philosophy of ‘Traditional Values and Innovative Ideas’, the Starlight Classics concert series stands out as one of the bank’s most treasured brand builders.
‘It’s got a core classical theme, which will never be lost, with each concert bringing something new. For example, in 2010 we had 20 tenors and more recently we had Handspring’s elephant puppets. The excitement lies in the fact that you never know what is going to happen next.
‘We’ve always invested in the arts and the arts give us a generous return of goodwill that goes beyond the balance sheet. It’s doing good business and doing good work in equal measure. In fact, music has the power to transform lives for the better and in addition to its emotive audience engagement, everyone goes home with a winning feeling.’