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Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor, Composer)

Born: June 30, 1958 - Helsinki, Finland

The Finnish conductor and composer, Esa-Pekka Salonen, 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.

Esa-Pekka Salonen started appearing as a horn soloist. He made his conducting debut with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1979, and began appearing as a guest conductor in 1982. His conducting career took off in 1983, following his sensational London debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra in September 1983 (when he was 25 years old), stepping in at the last minute for an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas to conduct a now-legendary performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. The chemistry was immediate, and Salonen formed a strong bond with the players. He was offered the position of Principal Guest Conductor, which he held from 1985 to 1994, and he has returned to conduct the Orchestra on a regular basis ever since. Some of the Philharmonia’s most ambitious and important projects during this time, from Clocks and Clouds (Ligeti, 1996) to Related Rocks (Magnus Lindberg, 2001-2002), have taken place under his artistic leadership.

Esa-Pekka Salonen made his American debut conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1984. He received a record contract with CBS Masterworks (now Sony Classical). He was also Chief Conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra for ten years from 1985 to 1995, as well as Director of the Helsinki Festival in 1995 and 1996.. During this period, he has emerged as one of the most exciting and fast-rising major conductors of the last two decades of the 20th century.

One of his early projects with Sony was a recording of Messiaen's Turangalila 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 Igor Stravinsky works for piano and orchestra, with Paul Crossley as soloist.

As a result of his highly successful performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in 1989, Esa-Pekka 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 Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra on major tours, also making a series of highly acclaimed recordings. In his time as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, highlights have included residencies at the Salzburg Festival, Köln Philharmonie and at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, as well as numerous European tours and guest performances in Japan. He held the post of Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra until 2009, and was named the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate in April 2009. On the occasion of his 17 year-tenure the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra celebrated him with a series of concerts in April 2009, including the premiere of his own violin concerto.

Since September 2008 Esa-Pekka Salonen has been Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. His appointment with the Philharmonia Orchestra cements a relationship that dates back over 25 years, since his debut there in 1983. In his first season in this role he devised and led City of Dreams, a nine-month exploration of the music and culture of Vienna between 1900 and 1935. The project, which presents the music of Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Alban Berg in its social and historical context, has travelled to 18 cities across Europe, culminating with semi-staged performances of A. Berg’s Wozzeck, with Simon Keenlyside in the title role, in October 2009. A series of recordings from the project will be released on the Philharmonia/Signum label, starting with Gurrelieder in September 2009. Other highlights of the 2009-2010 season with the Philharmonia Orchestra include the UK premiere of M. Lindberg’s new choral work GRAFFITI, and touring throughout Europe and Japan.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is known especially for his 20th century music performances, though he is also praised for his interpretations of Haydn, G. Mahler, and L.v. Beethoven. In addition to established modern composers such as Béla Bartók, Messiaen, I. Stravinsky, and Paul Hindemith, he also frequently performs more recent masters such as Lutoslawski, Ligeti, M. Lindberg, Saariaho, and Corigliano, whose concerto from the film The Red Violin he recorded with violinist Joshua Bell. Salonen has given countless premieres of new works. He has led critically acclaimed festivals of music by Berlioz, Ligeti, A. Schoenberg, Dmitri Shostakovich, and I. Stravinsky and M. Lindberg. In April 2006 he returned to Paris Opéra Bastille to conduct the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s new opera, Adriana Mater, having previously conducted the Finnish premiere of her first opera L’amour de loin in 2004. In August 2007, he conducted Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone in a production by Peter Sellars at the Helsinki Festival (first Finnish performance) before taking the production to the Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s guest conducting engagements in the season 2009-2010 include, amongst others, appearances with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. In August 2009, Salonen conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Salzburg Festival. He also conducted the new production of Janáček’s opera From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera New York and the Teatro alla Scala under the direction of Patrice Chéreau.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is artistic director of the Baltic Sea Festival, that he co-initiated in 2003. As an annual event in August in Stockholm and across the Baltic Sea region, it invites celebrated orchestras, conductors and soloists to promote unity and ecological awareness among the countries around the Baltic Sea.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has a considerable discography. In September 2009 a new partnership with the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Signum label has been launched with the release of a live recording of A. Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder; other forthcoming recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Signum include Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and G. Mahler’s 6th and 9th Symphonies. On Deutsche Grammophon, Salonen’s most recent releases include a disc of Salonen works performed with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and a DVD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera, L’Amour de loin with the Finnish National Opera as well as two CD’s with Hélène Grimaud with works by Arvo Pärt and Robert Schumann. In November 2008, Deutsche Grammophone released a new CD with Salonen’s piano concerto and his works Helix and Dichotomie which has been nominated for a Grammy in November 2009. The first recording of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Salonen for Deutsche Grammophon (I. Stravinskyy’s Rite of Spring - first CD recording ever at Walt Disney Concert Hall) was released in October 2006 and nominated for a Grammy in December 2007. After recording for Sony Classical for many years, Salonen has an extensive discography with repertoire ranging from G. Mahler and Revueltas to M. Lindberg and his own works. Most of his works are also available at DG Concerts on iTunes.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is the recipient of many major awards including the Siena Prize by the Accademia Chigiana in 1993, the first conductor ever to receive the prize; in 1995 he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Opera Award and in 1997 received the Society’s Conductor Award. In 1998 he was awarded the rank of Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. In May 2003 he received an honorary doctorate from the Sibelius Academy in Finland and in 2005 the Helsinki Medal. Musical America named Salonen as its "Musician of the Year 2006". In June 2009 Salonen received an honorary doctorate from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.


Esa-Pekka Salonen initially considered himself to be a conducting composer, until in 1983 he undertook a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London at short notice and became a composing conductor virtually overnight. Although he is primarily known now as a conductor, he still views composition as his main career.

Salonen's music employs up-to-date compositional techniques within a central tonality. His orchestral works are regularly performed and broadcast all around the world, and Floof and LA Variations have become established as modern classics. Two major retrospectives of his work - in Helsinki in March 2003 at Musica Nova and in Stockholm in October 2004 at the Stockholm International Composer Festival - have been presented to huge audiences and critical acclaim. A CD of five orchestral works is available on the Sony label. Deutsche Grammophon has released a portrait CD of his orchestral works performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer as well as a CD with Salonen’s Piano Concerto and his works Helix and Dichotomie with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Yefim Bronfman who also premiered the Piano Concerto in New York.

Salonen's first large scale orchestral work Concerto for saxophone and orchestra ('...auf den ersten blick und ohne zu wissen...'), based on Kafka's novel The Trial, dates from 1980-1981, when Salonen was studying in Milan with Niccolò Castiglioni. This was followed by Giro (1981), which uses something of the same harmonic structure, and Floof (1982; revised in 1990), an experimental bright piece setting texts by the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. This ebullient and histrionic tour de force for soprano and small ensemble won the UNESCO Rostrum prize in 1992 and has been widely performed and broadcast in Europe and the USA.

Although Salonen's burgeoning conducting career somewhat slowed down his composition output, he continued developing as a composer. During the 1980’s, he 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 solo compositions, and a pair of virtuoso duos entitled Meeting and Second Meeting, the latter forming the basis for Mimo II for oboe and small orchestra, written in 1992.

Ten years were to pass before Esa-Pekka Salonen had the time to complete another large-scale piece. It was in 1996 that Salonen composed a major orchestral piece, LA Variations, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has been Music Director since 1992. The piece had a triumphant premiere in January 1997, and has since proved to be one of the most popular orchestral works of recent decades. LA Variations marked the start of a newly fertile composing life. In June 1997 Salonen made extensive revisions to Giro; the new version was premiered at the Avanti! Summer Sounds Festival in Finland. Another orchestral work, Gambit, was composed in 1998 as a 40th birthday present for his compatriot and great friend Magnus Lindberg; this was followed a year later (1999) by Five Images After Sappho, a song-cycle for soprano and ensemble co-commissioned by the Ojai Festival, California and the London Sinfonietta.

In 2000 Esa-Pekka Salonen composed the Concert Etude for solo horn, Dichotomie for solo piano, the cello concerto Mania for Anssi Karttunen and London Sinfonietta, and his first choral work - Two Songs to Poems of Ann Jäderlund for the Schwedischer Rundfunkchor (Swedish Radio Choir). The virtuosic Stockholm Diary for string orchestra was commissioned by the Stockholm Concert Hall Foundation for the Stockholm Phiharmonic Orchestra and Stockholmer Kammerorchester (Stockholm Chamber Orchestra) to mark the occasion of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Composer Portrait at the Konserthuset in Stockholm October 2004.

In the recent years Esa-Pekka Salonen has completed further works for symphony orchestra - Foreign Bodies (2001), commissioned by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Insomnia (2002), co-commissioned by Suntory Hall, Tokyo and Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Hamburg, Wing on Wing (2004), which received its world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall in June 2004, and was a gift from the composer to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in honour of their new home, and Helix (2005), which was commissioned by the BBC Proms. In February 2007 Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the first performance of his first Piano Concerto, dedicated to Yefim Bronfman who also premiered it. This concerto was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC, Radio France and NDR Hamburg, the first European performance took place at the BBC Proms in London in July 2007. At the beginning of 2008 the Johannes String Quartet premiered Salonen’s string quartet Homunculus. His most recent work was premiered in April 2009 when his violin concerto, written for Leila Josefowicz was premiered in Los Angeles.

More Photos

Source: Esa-Pekka Salonen Website (March 2010); All Music Guide Website (Author: Joseph Stevenson)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (July 2010)

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Short Biography | Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra | Recordings of Instrumental Works

Links to other Sites

Esa-Pekka Salonen (Official Website)
Celebrating Salonen (LAPO)
Philharmonia Orchestra: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen Biography (Chester&Novello)

Esa-Pekka Salonen - Biography (AMG)
Esa-Pekka Salonen (Wikipedia)
Esa-Pekka Salonen (IMDB)
Opera Chic: Esa-Pekka Salonen

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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