Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste is best known for his advocacy of contemporary music from his homeland, particularly the choral works of Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, Heino Eller, and Erkki-Sven Tüür. But he has also spent much of his career in the opera house, not a surprising activity for a man who began as a choral conductor. In 1974 Kaljuste succeeded his father as conductor of the Ellerhein Choral Ensemble. From this relatively modest beginning, Kaljuste launched his operatic career at the Estonian National Opera, and then won the best conductor prize at the 1980 Béla Bartók Choral Competition. In just a few years he had become one of Estonia's most important young conductors. He would soon found the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and take on additional major international conducting posts. Kaljuste's repertory extends well beyond Estonian music, of course, taking in works by Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, Taneyev, Rachmaninov, Schnittke, and a host of others. Kaljuste has recorded for ECM Records, BIS, Carus, and other major labels.
Kaljuste was born in Talinn, Estonia, in 1953. In his youth he sang in the Ellerhein Children's Choir under his father. He also studied piano and choral conducting before enrolling at the Talinn Conservatory, where he studied both orchestral and choral conducting.
After his 1976 graduation, Kaljuste studied two more years at the Leningrad Conservatory. 1978 was a pivotal year for him: he began conducting at the Estonian National Opera (until 1995) and launched a two-year stint teaching choral conducting at the Talinn Conservatory. At the 1980 Bartók Competition, Kaljuste not only won best conductor prize, but his Ellerhein ensemble won first prize as best choral group.
In 1981 Kaljuste expanded the Ellerhein ensemble into a full-time company and renamed it the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Throughout the 1980s, Kaljuste regularly worked with the group, remained active in opera, and freelanced as an orchestral conductor.
Kaljuste founded the Talinn Chamber Orchestra in 1993 and the following year was appointed principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Choir, serving until 2000. In 1995 Kaljuste and the choir made a highly acclaimed recording of Rachmaninov's Vespers for Virgin Classics. From 1998 until 2000 Kaljuste led the Netherlands Chamber Choir. Since 2001 Kaljuste has largely been active as a freelance conductor in choral, operatic, and orchestral repertory. His later recordings include the 2009 ECM recording of Arvo Pärt's In principio and other choral and orchestral works.