By Rebecca Edwards ’21


Hidden away in Riverside County, California, music professor Victoria Malawey spent a month exploring the nature and wildlife of the desert southwest—and composing. 

A resident of the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, Malawey was on retreat from the outside world to focus on crafting a musical arrangement to be performed by the Macalester Orchestra upon her return. The result: Dorland Symphony, a 13-minute tribute in three movements to life in the Temescal mountains.

“The first movement draws on bird calls that I heard and transcribed in the morning, including the mourning dove and the great horned owl,” Malawey says. “I used those as the melodies, the musical motifs for the piece. And then the second movement is all about hiking this trail at Bee Canyon, and the last is about the heat and the dragonflies.”

Malawey, a practiced composer of chamber music, generally designs pieces for performance by small groups of musicians. As her first orchestral piece in nearly 20 years, Dorland Symphony presented other challenges.

“Writing for a symphony orchestra—there’s a lot of parts,” Malawey says. “The process was similar in that I was able to generate the melody and the chords, and I had some idea of the textures I wanted to create. But the next part, actually figuring out who’s going to play what and scoring the piece to get the best balance acoustically, was more difficult.” 

Bass player Henry Beimers ’20 (Northfield, Minn.), who has also worked as a course preceptor for Malawey, noted that Malawey’s previous experience with orchestra students made the piece especially effective. 

“She mentioned to me that she actually wrote some of the parts with specific students in mind,” Beimers says. “I thought that was really cool, how she was able to incorporate that personal quality into the music. It was definitely well suited for us.” 

It’s rare that a student orchestra is able to work directly with a composer to debut a piece.

“Most pieces that most orchestras perform are by dead, white, European men,” Malawey says. “So I know when directors and conductors have the chance to work with a living composer, they try to do that.”

Malawey was able to express to the students her intentions for the piece in early rehearsals, and later, offer critique on the nuances of the production prior to the final performance. Oboe player Kata Hahn ’20 (Madison, Wis.) says that feedback made all the difference. 

“She came into our rehearsals and gave us comments on how she was imagining the music would feel,” Hahn says. “It’s really different to work on a piece that hasn’t been performed before, so she and our conductor Mark Mandarano had a lot of conversations about what parts were challenging for us and ways to evolve the piece to fit our needs.”

The piece saw its debut at the orchestra’s December concert at the end of fall semester. According to Malawey, the experience of seeing her composition performed live for the first time was “absolutely exhilarating.” 

“It is such an honor to have these talented students perform a creative work that you made—it’s such a unique feeling. And it was so cool to have my community there behind me, supporting it. It was just an absolute dream.”

June 24 2020

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