Esa-Pekka Salonen emerged as one of the most exciting and fast-rising major conductors of the last two decades of the 20th century. He entered the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki 1973, studying horn with Holgar Fransman. Having graduated in 1977, Salonen remained to take composition with Einojuhani Rautavaara and conducting with Jorma Panula. He also studied composition with Franco Donatoni in Siena, attended the summer course at Darmstadt, and, from 1980 to 1981, studied with Niccolò Castiglioni.
Although he is primarily known as a conductor, Salonen views composition as his main career. His first large-scale orchestral work was the Concerto for 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 the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. This work won the UNESCO Rostrum Prize in 1992. During the 1980s, Salonen composed tape music and music with electronics and instruments combined. Works composed during this period include Baalal, a radiophonic piece, and Yta (Surface), a series of experimental compositions. Although Salonen's burgeoning conducting career somewhat slowed down his composition output, he continued developing as a composer. His 1996 orchestral piece, LA Variations, received its triumphant premiere at the Los Angeles Philharmonic 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. Salonen's music employs up-to-date compositional techniques within a central tonality. Other significant works include Wing on Wing for orchestra and two sopranos (2004) and a Piano Concerto (2007) written for Yefim Bronfman.
Salonen started appearing as a horn soloist and guest conductor beginning in 1982. His conducting career took off in 1983, following his sensational London debut with the Philharmonia. Salonen made his American debut conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1984. 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 Sony 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 took a second award in 1989 with the Sibelius and Nielsen violin concertos, featuring Cho-Liang Lin as soloist, and won further awards with the complete Stravinsky works for piano and orchestra, with Paul Crossley as soloist.
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 the orchestra's youngest music director, and a successor to such luminaries as Zubin Mehta and Carlo Maria Giulini. Salonen has led the LA Philharmonic on major tours, also making a series of highly acclaimed recordings.
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, Stravinsky, and Hindemith, he also frequently performs more recent masters such as Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Lindberg, Saariaho, and Corigliano, whose concerto from the film The Red Violin he recorded with violinist Joshua Bell.