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Swallow Hill Music Changes Tune with the Times

New Director Andres Cladera aims to build on the nonprofit's rich history as an instructional and performance center.

Little Mozarts, a kids' piano class at Swallow Hill's Lowry location.

Silver Streak, a 1976 chrome RV anonymously donated to Swallow Hill Music earlier this year.

Andres Cladera took the reins of Swallow Hill Music in March 2014.

A painting from Uruguay hangs in Cladera's office.

At a time when in-school arts programming has largely been kicked to the curb for lack of funding, Swallow Hill Music is a refuge for music lovers in the Denver area, as it has been since 1979. New School Director Andres Cladera aims to build on the nonprofit's rich history as an instructional and performance center. 
Andres Cladera took the reins of Swallow Hill Music School  in March 2014 in large part due to what he saw as an opportunity to bring the world to Denver.

Cladera's self-described "sensitivity to world music" stems from his upbringing in Montevideo, Uruguay, and he's now looking to take his appreciation for far-flung sounds to Swallow Hill's teachers and students alike.

"Back home, music was such a powerful thing," the 38-year-old says. "I came from a very musical family. My dad played piano and guitar. My mom had a tango ensemble with her two sisters. I've been in opera since I was seven years old" --though he says he hasn't sung in years.

But he didn't think he'd make a career out of it. "There was this medical and engineer side of the family, so I thought for a hot second I was going to be a doctor."

But his musical inclinations beat out his medical side, and Cladera ventured to the United States on a scholarship to the College of Charleston in South Carolina in 1995, where he received his bachelor of fine arts in piano and vocal performance, and went on to earn a master's in orchestral conducting from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Following his schooling, he held posts as the Artistic Director of the Microscopic Opera Company and Renaissance City Choir in Pittsburgh.

Off the road and around the worldAndres Cladera took the reins of Swallow Hill Music in March 2014.

When Cladera moved to Denver in 2011, he was a full-time touring conductor. Over time, however, he grew tired of the traveling. 

"I was looking to be associated with a strong institution here in Denver," Cladera says. "When I found out that Swallow Hill Music was looking for a director, I decided to throw my name into the hat."

Though his professional background is as a classical musician, he calls himself a "folk aficionado." When asked to define folk, Cladera was initially hesitant. "I'm not sure I have a definition and don't want to ruin it for anybody else. There's something elusive about it," he says, of the genre. "It's music of the people. It's a natural expression -- non-structured, with a social component.”

It follows that Cladera's vision for Swallow Hill Music is defining its community -- what he calls a diverse collection of people with an itch to create music together. "My goal is to be able to represent and expand the community's musical knowledge into other cultures -- really give the organization more of a world feel," he says. 

"Andres brings a very global perspective," says Charlotte D'Armond-Talbert, Scientific and Cultural Collaborative Coordinator with Colorado Creative Industries (CCI), the arts-centric arm of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and longtime Swallow Hill supporter. "Those of us who haven't worked in an international arena may just continually trip over ourselves, and fail to realize that our perspective isn't the only one out there."

This fall, Swallow Hill Music will kick off its new "Around the World at Swallow Hill Music" program, introducing Brazilian songs, flamenco guitar, yodeling, samba, Indian drumming and other rhythms from all corners of the planet. Cladera's additional aspirations include adding a dance component, "whether that be clogging or two-step, tango or flamenco."

With the new offerings, "We're taking on the challenge of engaging totally new audiences," Cladera says.

Space constraints 

However, "One of the first challenges he's probably facing is just physical space," says D'Armond Talbert. "You can only expand so much when you don't have a place to put the people.”

Of Swallow Hill Music's four relocations over its 30-plus years, "The moves have all been facilitated by capacity issues," says Cladera, while noting, "Too much interest…is a good problem for a nonprofit to have."

Swallow Hill Music now serves more than 130,000 people a year, becoming the "second largest folk music center in the country," according to Cladera.

The organization grew out of the the Denver Folklore Center, founded by Harry Tuft in 1962 -- complete with a music shop, repair station and concert venue -- and relocated from Uptown to Baker in 1980, then moved to Old South Pearl Street in Platt Park a decade later.

In 1999, the current facility opened at 71 E. Yale Ave. Today, three concert venues at the former church offer more than 250 live music performances a year, featuring local, national and international talent, and a 62-instructor faculty provides education to more than 5,000 students a year. In addition, Swallow Hill reaches over 15,000 students through education K-12 outreach programs in schools across the Front Range.

Swallow Hill Music also presents and produces its annual Rootsfest celebration, concerts at the L2 Arts & Culture Center in Capitol Hill and summer street fairs on Old South Pearl Street, as well as performances at the Denver Botanic Gardens for its long-running Summer Concert Series.

Cladera admits that the current building is "kind of tapped." To address the spillover and further broaden its music community, the center expanded to a Lowry satellite campus just after Cladera took his new post, with three additional classrooms at the Colorado Free University building in the Lowry neighborhood. He also intends to add a mobile recording studio using Silver Streak, a 1976 chrome RV anonymously donated to Swallow Hill Music earlier this year.

Little Mozarts, a kids' piano class at Swallow Hill's Lowry location.A musical cornerstone

With music education pushed aside at many schools, such moves are critical to keeping music education strong in Denver. "Over the past 34 years, Swallow Hill Music has played a fundamental role in the development of Colorado's folk music landscape," says CCI Director Margaret Hunt. "It fills many important community needs both as a community center and in areas of booking and promotion, artist development and fostering young musicians through education."

Cladera certainly wants to keep filling those needs. "My goal with that is to go into different schools and organizations, instruct kids about the arts," he says. "How we really get kids involved is by having them physically learn an instrument. Then you get that emotional involvement, rather than sitting in an assembly and listening to someone passively. Kids want to come play."

He calls Swallow Hill "a strong, financially solvent organization that's quadrupled in size and scope in the past seven years," attributing the growth to the concert department and collaborations with other organizations.

But Cladera isn't interested in growth for growth's sake -- he wants to shake things up, and describes a personal ethos that sounds more punk than folk.

"One of the reasons I joined Swallow Hill Music was because it's a non-conforming organization," he says. "I want to take risks and change things. Music and the arts need to be taken from the stagnant, conservative approach in the Denver area to experimental and exploratory. That's what I'm here to do."

Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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