Tar Heel of The Week: Challenges the audience, kowtows to talent

Staff writerJanuary 16, 2011 

Aaron Greenwald is the director of Duke Performances, and the short description of his job is that he puts on shows. But that goes well beyond simply scheduling acts into venues. A large part of the job involves catering to the whims of artistic, eccentric people, which can be ... challenging.

Greenwald learned that early on in his new job. He had brought jazz bassist Charlie Haden to Durham for a 2007 performance with pianist Hank Jones. After getting Haden checked into his hotel, Greenwald was driving away when his cell phone rang. It was Haden: He'd forgotten his slippers. He wanted Greenwald to get him some. At 1 a.m.

"I turned around, went back and took him to the 24-hour Rite Aid," Greenwald recalls with a laugh. "All they had were white terrycloth and Charlie goes, 'Aw, man, those are lady slippers! What if the room-service folks see me?' Then he asks if they have magnesium pills, and he's shaking the containers: 'I can't swallow big pills, man.' We end up at the counter with two pairs of slippers, three brands of magnesium pills, four different toothbrushes because he couldn't remember what level of firmness he liked.

"It was," Greenwald concludes, "a crash course in what I would have to deal with. But it's what you get when you're trying to put interesting stuff together. You deal with people working on the fringes."

But his job has yielded more than just entertaining war stories. Since taking over Duke Performances in 2006, Greenwald has turned it into one of the most boundary-crossing, consistently interesting arts series in the country - at a time when economics would seem to dictate a more conservative approach.

Greenwald's first signature series was "Following Monk," an ambitious program of 2007-2008 shows about Rocky Mount-born jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Since then, he has put together numerous intriguing pairings, including bluegrass giant Del McCoury with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; local freak-folk trio Megafaun leading a performance of radically re arranged field recordings from Alan Lomax's 1959 "Sounds of the South" box set (which was also recorded and filmed for upcoming release); and, next week, a collaboration between country-rock singer/songwriter Tift Merritt and classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein.

"Performing arts directors can slip into a clone mentality, programming what others in similar positions do," says Barry Poss, founder and former president of Sugar Hill Records. "But Aaron comes from a far more creative place. He takes big, audacious chances, which includes crossing boundaries in conjuring up thoughtful performance pairings. It's all just outrageously wonderful."

Arts-loving family

Greenwald, 34, grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in a family that valued art and community involvement. The University of California's performance series presented an eclectic range of events, from modern jazz to Shakespeare, and the Greenwalds regularly attended. Greenwald describes himself as "a totally ostentatious child." When his third-grade class was given a choice of what to read, he picked "Macbeth."

"Like everybody, what I program has to do with things that were important to me as a child and young adult," Greenwald says. "I've always been curious about the American South, which is what happens when you grow up with culturally engaged liberal parents in California. The South was always a place of mystery and amazing art, as opposed to just the home of Jim Crow."

Poetry and track

Greenwald went to Columbia University intending to study poetry and to run track. Injuries sidelined his running career, and poetry soon gave way to theater. It was a good time to be studying theater at Columbia - one classmate was Maggie Gyllenhaal, who received an Oscar nomination last year for "Crazy Heart." Greenwald concentrated on directing, earning a degree in 1998.

After a year of graduate study in South Africa, Greenwald took a job producing videos in Nashville for the Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire and other country acts. Then he worked for a concert producer in New York before coming to Durham in 2005 to run the North Carolina Festival of the Book, moving the next year to Duke Performances where he has acquired an energetic can-do reputation.

"From minute one of the first call, he was, 'Yep, let's meet this and figure it out,' " says Bradley Cook of Megafaun, who worked with Greenwald on the "Sounds of the South" project. "Even though I explained the idea in pretty raw form, he was immediately on-board. And he was great to work with, instantly in the mix on making everything happen."

Huge, eclectic season

Duke Performances' current season consists of 65 presentations, with an overall budget of $2.3 million. This year's theme is the intersection between folk culture and the avant garde in America, with events ranging from folksinger Loudon Wainwright covering the songs of bluegrass pioneer Charlie Poole to jazz trio The Bad Plus performing the music of Igor Stravinsky's 1913 ballet "The Rite of Spring."

Many of this season's most notable shows are loosely grouped under the heading "Liars, Thieves & Big Shot Ramblers" - among them the Wainwright/Poole show, a live performance of the Grateful Dead's landmark 1970 album "American Beauty," and the upcoming pairing of eccentric country artist Jim White with the South Memphis String Band.

"There's a certain amount of standard repertoire that tours all over and sells well, and you do some of that," Greenwald says. "But there are increasing opportunities to do things that don't normally happen in spaces like ours. One thing we seem to do well is help develop new work, like 'Sounds of the South' or some of the dance and theater work. Durham's a great place to host people. It's quiet, good quality of life, housing is cheap and we have excellent facilities."

Of course, not every booking is a resounding success. Greenwald is easy to spot at Duke Performances shows - the slightly built, impeccably dressed man pacing around the lobby fretting that more people aren't coming.

"Yeah, there are a lot of challenges," Greenwald says. "The biggest is convincing people to come see things they're not familiar with. But at the end of the day, that's our mission. It's to create a platform or brand that people feel comfortable with, so they'll take a chance on our programming."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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