Esa-Pekka Salonen emerged as one of the most exciting major conductors of the late 20th century and has continued his illustrious career into the 21st. While best known for his conducting, Salonen views composition as his main career.
Salonen was born June 30, 1958, in Helsinki, Finland. He entered the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in 1973, studying horn with Holgar Fransman. Having graduated in 1977, Salonen remained to study composition with Einojuhani Rautavaara and conducting with Jorma Panula. He later continued his composition studies with Franco Donatoni and Niccolò Castiglioni, and also attended the summer course at Darmstadt.
Salonen's first large-scale orchestral work was the Concerto for alto saxophone & orchestra "...Auf den esten Blick und ohne zu wissen" (1980-1981), based on Kafka's novel The Trial. His second orchestral work, Giro, dates from 1981. The following year, he composed Floof (revised in 1990), a bright work for soprano and ensemble based on texts by science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. This work won the UNESCO Rostrum Prize in 1992. During the 1980s, Salonen composed tape music, as well as music with electronics and instruments combined. Works composed during this period include Baalal, a radiophonic piece, and Yta (Surface), a series of experimental compositions. His 1996 orchestral piece, LA Variations, received its triumphant premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1997. The following year, he wrote Gambit, an orchestral work dedicated to Magnus Lindberg. In 1999, he completed Five Images after Sappho, a song cycle for soprano and small ensemble. Other significant works include Wing on Wing for orchestra and two sopranos (2004), a Piano Concerto (2007) written for Yefim Bronfman, and a Cello Concerto (2017), which was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Salonen's music employs up-to-date compositional techniques within a central tonality.
Salonen started appearing as a horn soloist and guest conductor in 1982. His conducting career took off in 1983, following his sensational London debut with the Philharmonia. He made his American debut conducting the LA Philharmonic in 1984. Following these successful debuts, he received a record contract with CBS Masterworks (now Sony Classical), as well as the position of principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia (1985-1994). One of his early projects with CBS was a recording of Messiaen's Turangalîla and Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 3, the latter a world-premiere recording that won a Gramophone Award for Best Contemporary Record in 1985. He won a second award in 1989 for a recording of Sibelius and Nielsen violin concertos, featuring Cho-Liang Lin. He won further awards with the complete Stravinsky works for piano and orchestra, with Paul Crossley. As a result of his highly successful performances with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1989, Salonen was invited to become the orchestra's music director. He assumed that post in 1992, becoming, at that time, the orchestra's youngest music director (since supplanted by Gustavo Dudamel), and a successor to such luminaries as Zubin Mehta and Carlo Maria Giulini. Salonen led the LA Philharmonic on major tours and made a series of highly acclaimed recordings. He remained with the LA Philharmonic until 2009. In 2006, he was named principal conductor, and in 2008 the artistic director, of the Philharmonia. He served in these positions through the 2020-2021 season. Salonen became the music director of the San Francisco Symphony in 2020.
Salonen is known especially for his 20th century music performances, though he is also praised for his interpretations of Haydn, Mahler, and Beethoven. In addition to established modern composers such as Bartók, Messiaen, and Stravinsky, he also frequently performs more recent masters such as Lutoslawski, Ligeti, and Corigliano, whose concerto from the film The Red Violin he recorded with violinist Joshua Bell.