The Kingsbury Manx, stalwarts of the local music scene, finished their set last Wednesday just as the heavy air of the late summer afternoon finally started to lighten. In the leafy embrace of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, a razor-thin sliver of moon crouching above the treetops, they played a languorous encore before a relaxed crowd of 500. A few kids danced in front of the stage, and by kids I mean toddlers—not your usual indie rock audience.
Presiding over the scene was Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances. Under his stewardship, the program has pulled ever-wider audiences to its exquisitely curated offerings. He's built relationships with established figures of the avant-garde, like the Kronos Quartet, which has lately become something of a house band, premiering new works here. More than just bringing big names to town, though, he's put his stamp on the arts scene by helping to originate bold new works that might never have come together but for his canny extension of the Duke aegis.
One of his favorite examples was last season's performance and live recording of The Hallelujah Train. In homage to a gospel TV show of the same name from the '70s and '80s, hosted by Pastor Brady Blade of Shreveport, La., the performance was a unique collaboration between the accomplished jazz drummer Brian Blade, musician/ producer Daniel Lanois and a slew of highly regarded musicians. For two days in October at Hayti Heritage Center, a deconsecrated church in central Durham, they performed with the elder Pastor Blade—"a gutbucket gospel singer" according to Greenwald—backed by a busload of the Zion Baptist Church Choir from Shreveport.
"That was one of the most remarkable presenting experiences I've ever had," says Greenwald. "It was a totally inspiring, beautiful project, in exactly the right space ... We put on some shows that are mediocre, a lot of shows that are good, some shows that are great, and every so often we get to do something that's like, you're never going to fucking see that again!"
Greenwald came to the directorship at a relatively young age. Fresh from his successful overhaul of the North Carolina Festival of the Book in 2006, he was 31 when Duke named him interim director in 2007. With characteristic modesty, he's quick to note that the beginning of his tenure roughly coincided with a new push by Duke's leadership to underwrite the arts. This was achieved with the opening of the Nasher Museum of Art in 2005, followed soon after by a redoubled commitment to Duke Performances.
Greenwald took advantage and quickly established his own programming style in an effort to "rebrand" the series. Coming as he did from a festival background, he broke from standard institutional programming convention, in which events are grouped broadly by genre, in favor of a more free-ranging style centered on ideas. Obliquely allusive series titles like "Statements of Fact: Documentary in Performance" and "This House on Fire" may not tell you exactly what to expect, but the groupings aren't as arbitrary as they might seem at first glance. Spend 20 minutes talking to Greenwald, and you see the internal logic of his genre-spanning threads of connection. He explains, for instance, how the idea of a "black Atlantic," the Southern orbit of human migration and cultural exchange between Africa, the Caribbean and the United States, underlay many of the works in last year's calendar.
The new directions he took were an immediate hit with Duke students, who started turning out in greater numbers (one student even started a Facebook petition asking Duke to drop his interim status and hire him as the full-time director). Duke Provost Peter Lange credits Greenwald with "stretching people's comfort zones," tempting a curious audience to follow his lead. "He's certainly stretched mine!"
His tenure hasn't been without growing pains: Greenwald stretched some audiences too far in his first year, with an admittedly "intense," "jagged," "in-your-face" program for the traditionally staid Duke Artists series. Rather than falling back on familiar works from the Western canon, he scheduled edgy concerts like Kronos Quartet's multicultural meditation on the anniversary of 9/11 and Dawn Upshaw's performance of an Osvaldo Golijov song cycle that featured amplification (anathema to traditionalists). A segment of the core classical audience at Duke, "people who had supported the series for a long time," made their disapproval known.
The next year, he shook up the series again by including "world" classical music, booking Simon Shaheen, a Palestinian-American composer, and Indian classical musicians Zakir Hussain and Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. "That really made people upset," he says. He wasn't inclined to return to the standard repertory, however, because he knew the audience for it has been dwindling steadily for decades. Instead, he responded with a rejiggered classical lineup, including both traditional and more cutting-edge works, while adding a piano recital series that's been surprisingly popular—"people come out of the woodwork" for it—especially among students, bringing new audiences to the classical tradition while helping to satisfy its perennial supporters.
A play for new audiences is also at the heart of the Duke Gardens concert series, which Greenwald started three years ago. The gospel acts he booked the first year didn't draw much, but indie bands like Portastatic and Bowerbirds started to bring in dependable crowds. Ticket buyers included a healthy proportion of Duke students, but the unorthodox venue also tapped a vein of listeners who might not otherwise get to hear these kinds of performers live.
"These are people in their 30s and 40s who were once part of the scene at the Cradle," he said, surveying the Kingsbury Manx crowd, which included a fair number of families. "Going out for an 11:30 set on a weeknight doesn't cut it anymore." And it's not just the early-to-bed hour that sets the Garden series apart: "We're meticulous," Greenwald says. "The sound is right. The promotional materials are carefully designed. It's a more considered and deliberate experience."
The discernment and vision that Greenwald has brought during his three years at Duke Performances have made the series essential for art lovers in the Triangle. And he's just getting started. This week will see the publication of the calendar for the new season, which features programming coups like the North Carolina homecoming of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on its farewell tour, at DPAC; Loudon Wainwright III, playing songs from last summer's Grammy-winning tribute to Depression-era Tar Heel Charlie Poole with a full band; the premiere of a new Steve Reich string quartet (only his third ever) by Kronos; and indie artists Megafaun, Fight the Big Bull and Bon Iver cutting a live recording at Hayti based on Alan Lomax's Southern songbook.
Greenwald's enthusiasm for the upcoming season goes beyond his role as impresario. Attending the shows is clearly one of the main perks of his job. More than that, it's a source of sustenance. He sums up his mission by referring to a recent study: "When people reflect back on purchases they made over the last year, the money they spent on art is the money they best remembered having spent. Art that they went to—frankly, whether it was great or not so great—it was the thing that had the most staying power."