Esa-Pekka Salonen in 1997
Esa-Pekka Salonen in 1997

Esa-Pekka Salonen KBE (pronounced [ˈesɑˌpekːɑ ˈsɑlonen] (audio speaker iconlisten); born June 30, 1958) is a Finnish orchestral conductor and composer. He is principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and music director of the San Francisco Symphony.

Life and career

Early work

Born in Helsinki, Finland, Salonen graduated from Helsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu (SYK), one of the top high schools in Finland, in 1977[1] and then went to study horn and composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, as well as conducting with Jorma Panula. His conducting classmates included Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Osmo Vänskä. Another classmate on the composition side was the composer Magnus Lindberg and together they formed the new-music appreciation group Korvat auki ("Ears open" in the Finnish language) and the experimental ensemble Toimii (lit. "It works"). Later, Salonen studied with the composers Franco Donatoni, Niccolò Castiglioni, and Einojuhani Rautavaara.

His first experience with conducting came in 1979 with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, though he still thought of himself principally as a composer; in fact, Salonen has said that he took up conducting primarily to ensure that someone would conduct his own compositions. In 1983, however, he replaced an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas to conduct a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London on very short notice, without ever having studied the score, and it launched his career as a conductor.[2] He was subsequently principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia from 1985 to 1994.

Salonen was principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1984 to 1995. He co-founded the Baltic Sea Festival in 2003 with Michael Tydén [sv] and Valery Gergiev. This summer music festival presents new classical music and aims to bring the countries around the Baltic Sea together and to raise awareness of environmental deterioration of the Baltic. It continues to be held annually in one of the region's countries.[3]

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Salonen made his conducting debut in the United States with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984. He said:

I had no idea what to expect. But the one thing that I didn't expect was when an older player came to talk to me after the first concert and said, "Consider this your future home". Something was going on, because I felt the same. I sensed with an absolute certainty that this orchestra, in whatever way, was going to be a very important part of my life. Always.[4]

In 1989, he was offered the title of Principal Guest Conductor by Executive VP Ernest Fleischmann and was to take the orchestra on a tour of Japan; however, controversy ensued when André Previn, the orchestra's music director at the time, was not consulted on either the Principal Guest appointment or the tour, and objected to both. Continued friction between Fleischmann and Previn led to Previn's resignation in April 1989.[5] Four months later, Salonen was named the orchestra's tenth music director, officially taking the post in 1992 and holding it until 2009.

Salonen's tenure with the orchestra began with a residency at the 1992 Salzburg Festival in concert performances and as the pit orchestra in a production of the opera Saint François d'Assise by Olivier Messiaen; it was the first time an American orchestra was given that opportunity. Salonen later took the orchestra on many other tours of the United States, Europe, and Asia, and residencies at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, The Proms in London, in Cologne for a festival of Salonen's own works, and in 1996 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris for a Stravinsky festival conducted by Salonen and Pierre Boulez; it was during this Paris residency that key Philharmonic board members heard the orchestra perform in improved acoustics and were re-invigorated to lead fundraising efforts to complete construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Under Salonen's leadership, the Philharmonic became an extremely progressive and well-regarded orchestra. Alex Ross of The New Yorker said this:

The Salonen era in L.A. may mark a turning point in the recent history of classical music in America. It is a story not of an individual magically imprinting his personality on an institution – what Salonen has called the "empty hype" of conductor worship – but of an individual and an institution bringing out unforeseen capabilities in each other, and thereby proving how much life remains in the orchestra itself, at once the most conservative and the most powerful of musical organisms.[6]

In 2007, Salonen and the orchestra announced the conclusion of his music directorship in 2009, with Gustavo Dudamel taking his place.[7][8][9][10]

Before Salonen's last concert as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic on April 19, 2009, the orchestra announced his appointment as its first Conductor Laureate.[11] In addition, the LA Philharmonic created the Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissions Fund "for the express purpose of supporting the commissioning and performance of new works" as a way to honor his support of contemporary classical music during his tenure as music director. At its inception, it was endowed with $1.5 million.[12][13]

During Salonen's tenure as music director, the orchestra gave 120 pieces their world or American debuts and commissioned over 54 new works. By the time he stepped down, he had served as music director longer than anyone else in the orchestra's history, leading the orchestra in 973 concerts and 23 tours.[14][15]

Philharmonia and subsequent career

In November 2006, the Philharmonia Orchestra announced the appointment of Salonen as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor at the beginning of the 2008–2009 season.[16] His initial contract was for 3 years. Salonen has conducted several commercial recordings with the Philharmonia, including music of Berlioz and Schönberg.[17] In November 2010, the Philharmonia announced the extension of Salonen's contract to 2014.[18] In September 2013, the orchestra announced the further extension of Salonen's contract through the 2016–2017 season.[19] In December 2018, the Philharmonia announced that Salonen would conclude his principal conductorship of the orchestra after the 2020–2021 season.[20]

Salonen made his Metropolitan Opera conducting debut in November 2009 with the Patrice Chéreau production of Leoš Janáček's From the House of the Dead.[21]

In 2012, his violin concerto written for Leila Josefowicz won the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, an award previously won by Witold Lutosławski, György Ligeti, John Adams, Thomas Adès, and Pierre Boulez, to name a few.[22] In March 2014, he was awarded the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Musical Composition by the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. The award includes a $100,000 cash prize, a residency of four nonconsecutive weeks at the school over the next two years, and a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.[23] In the same spring, he was also awarded the first creative chair at the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich for the 2014–2015 season. This post included lectures, workshops, but, most significantly, the commissioning of Karawane, a new piece for orchestra and chorus based on Hugo Ball's dada poetry and the performance of nine other Salonen pieces throughout the season.[24]

In fall 2015, Salonen began a three-season appointment as composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic.[25] He serves as an advisor to The Sync Project, a global collaboration seeking to understand and harness music's effect on brain health.[26] In August 2016, Salonen was named the first artist in association with the Finnish National Opera and Ballet.[27]

Salonen first guest-conducted the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in 2004. He returned for guest-conducting appearances in 2012 and 2015. In December 2018, the SFS announced the appointment of Salonen as its next music director, effective with the 2020–2021 season, with an initial contract of five seasons.[28][29]

Digital projects

Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra have worked on multi-disciplinary festivals together, including Woven Words: Music begins where words end to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Witold Lutosławski, Salonen's mentor.[30] They also created the award-winning RE-RITE installation, which was first exhibited in London in 2009 and has since travelled to Portugal, China, Turkey, Germany, and Austria. The digital residency allows members of the public to conduct, play and step inside the Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen through audio and video projections of musicians performing The Rite of Spring.[31] They followed-up with another installation, Universe of Sound, which was based on Gustav Holst's The Planets, debuted at London's Science Museum,[32] and won the 2012 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Audiences and Engagement.[33] Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, in partnership with Music Sales Group, Rite Digital, and Touch Press, released a successful iPad app, "The Orchestra". Slate called the interactive tour through orchestral history "the perfect classical music app."[34] In the fall of 2016, the Philharmonia Orchestra launched a digital takeover of the Southbank Centre, featuring the first major virtual-reality production from a UK symphony orchestra.[35]

Apple campaign

Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra perform Lutosławski, Sibelius and Salonen at the Apple Store, Berlin
Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra perform Lutosławski, Sibelius and Salonen at the Apple Store, Berlin

In 2014 Salonen was part of an international television and web campaign for Apple, promoting iPad Air.[36] The campaign included not only the ad itself,[37] but also discussions with Salonen on classical music,[38] inspiration,[39] and composing.[40] Apple also offered a new and, for a limited time, free recording of Salonen's Grawemeyer prize-winning violin concerto, featuring the violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Philharmonia Orchestra, 20 of Salonen's classical music picks on the iTunes Store classical music page, 15 of Salonen's iPad app picks in the app store, and a guest DJ station on iTunes Radio.

The ad was noted for "the novelty of seeing a contemporary classical composer in a piece of mainstream advertising,"[41] for the synchronization of the video editing with the score, and for the positive portrayal of classical music as compared to its typical pop cultural image.[42] Salonen also did a concert with violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Philharmonia Orchestra in an Apple store in Berlin and spoke about mixing music and technology. It was the first time that a full orchestra had performed in an Apple store.[43]

In the summer of 2015, Salonen spoke on the uses of technology in music education to a group of Apple Distinguished Educators.[citation needed]

Personal life

Salonen and his ex-wife, Jane Price (a former musician with the Philharmonia Orchestra), have three children: daughters Ella Aneira and Anja Sofia, and son Oliver.[4][44] The couple separated in 2017[29] and filed for divorce in June 2018 after 26 years of marriage.[45][46]

When Igor Stravinsky's former Beverly Hills residence, at 1260 North Wetherly Drive, was put up for sale, Salonen strongly considered buying it. He stated, however that after visiting the house and noting that indentations from Stravinsky's piano were still visible in the carpet, he was too intimidated by the prospect of trying to compose in the same house where Stravinsky had written such works as Symphony in Three Movements, the Concerto in D for Strings, The Rake's Progress, Orpheus, Agon, the Cantata, and the Mass.[47][48][6]

Honours and awards

In April 2010, Salonen was elected a Foreign Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[49] In May 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Southern California, and later the same day spoke at the graduation ceremony for the USC Thornton School of Music.[50] Salonen carried the Olympic flame on July 26, 2012, as part of the 2012 Summer Olympics torch relay.[51] In December 2020, he was appointed an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), for services to music and UK-Finland relations.[52]

Career highlights


Salonen's compositions include his Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (auf den ersten Blick und ohne zu wissen) (1980, with a title taken from Franz Kafka's The Trial), Floof for soprano and ensemble (1982, on texts by Stanisław Lem) and the orchestral L.A. Variations (1996).

Salonen has stated that his time in California has helped him to be more "free" in his compositions. Mark Swed, chief music critic of the Los Angeles Times, described it this way:

When [Salonen] arrived in Los Angeles, he still liked to consider himself a composer-conductor, but the truth was that he had stopped writing music. "The obvious and easy explanation for me to give to people when they were asking why there hadn't been any new pieces for a while was that I had been conducting so much, I had no time," he said. "But that was only half the explanation."

As a European Modernist, Salonen said, he had been inculcated with negatives, such as to avoid melody, harmonic identity and rhythmic pulse. Secretly, though, he was attracted to John Adams, who was then dismissed overseas as being simplistic. "Only after a couple of years here did I begin to see that the European canon I blindly accepted was not the only truth," he said. "Over here, I was able to think about this rule that forbids melody. It's madness. Madness!"

Without a European musical elite looking over his shoulder, Salonen began to feel that it was fine to have his own ideas. "My focus moved from an ideological principle to a pleasure principle" is how he described the composition of his breakthrough piece, "LA Variations," which the Philharmonic premiered in 1997.

Although a work of great intricacy and virtuosity that doesn't ignore Salonen's Modernist training, "LA Variations" builds on rhythmic innovations closer to Adams. The piece proved an immediate hit, so much so that Salonen was stunned by the reaction and then by the score's continuing success – it has been taken up by several other conductors and had more than 80 performances worldwide.[4]

In order to devote more time to composition, Salonen took a year's sabbatical from conducting in 2000, during which time he wrote a work for solo horn (Concert Étude, the competition piece for Lieksa Brass Week), Dichotomie for pianist Gloria Cheng, Mania for the cellist Anssi Karttunen and sinfonietta, and Gambit, an orchestral piece that was a birthday present for fellow composer and friend Magnus Lindberg.

In 2001, Salonen composed Foreign Bodies, his largest work in terms of orchestration, which incorporated music from the opening movement of Dichotomie. Another orchestral piece, Insomnia, followed in 2002, and another, Wing on Wing, in 2004. Wing on Wing includes parts for two sopranos and distorted samples of architect Frank Gehry's voice as well as a fish.

As is apparent with his interpretations of such avant-garde works as Jan Sandström's Motorbike Odyssey, Salonen voices a distaste for ideological and dogmatic approaches to composition and sees music creation as deeply physical. In the liner notes for Deutsche Grammophon's release of Wing On Wing, he is quoted saying "Musical expression is bodily expression, there is no abstract cerebral expression in my opinion. It all comes out of the body." A recurring theme in his music is the fusion of or relationship between the mechanical and the organic.[55]

Salonen has among his intended composing projects a proposed opera based on the novel The Woman and the Ape by Peter Høeg.

Selected compositions

World premiere details shown where available, Salonen conducting unless otherwise shown[56]

Chamber ensemble

Selected world premiere performances

In addition to conducting his own compositions, Salonen has actively championed other composers' music, most notably Anders Hillborg, Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, and Steven Stucky. Many noteworthy compositions have even been dedicated to Salonen. Below is a list of some of the world premieres that he has conducted:

John Adams
Samuel Adams
Louis Andriessen
Anna Clyne
John Corigliano
Franco Donatoni
Richard Dubugnon [fr]
Anders Hillborg
William Kraft
Peter Lieberson
Magnus Lindberg
Larry Lipkis
Steven Mackey
Colin Matthews
David Newman
Gabriela Ortiz
Arvo Pärt
Joseph Phibbs
Bernard Rands
Roger Reynolds
Kaija Saariaho
Rodion Shchedrin
Dmitri Shostakovich
Roberto Sierra
Steven Stucky
Augusta Read Thomas
Mark-Anthony Turnage


Salonen is renowned for his dedication to performing and recording contemporary music. His 1985 recording of Witold Lutosławski's Symphony No. 3 won the 1985 Gramophone Award, the Grammy Award, and a Caecilia Prize for Best Contemporary Recording. He later recorded Lutosławski's Symphony No. 4 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, once for Sony Classical, and later in a live recording at Walt Disney Concert Hall for Deutsche Grammophon. He also worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra to record the complete works of György Ligeti for Sony Classical, but the project was left unfinished due to lack of funding.

Best-known recordings

With Los Angeles Philharmonic

Deutsche Grammophon
DG Concerts — recorded live at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Philips Classics
Sony Classical

Other orchestras

Philharmonia recordings
Oslo Philharmonic recordings
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra recordings
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra recordings
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra recordings
Avanti! Chamber Orchestra recordings
London Sinfonietta recordings
Stockholm Chamber Orchestra recordings
Stockholm Sinfonietta recordings
Staatskapelle Dresden recordings
Finnish National Opera recordings
Other recordings of Salonen works


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Cultural offices Preceded byHerbert Blomstedt Principal Conductor, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra 1984–1995 Succeeded byYevgeny Svetlanov Preceded byAndre Previn Music Director, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra 1992–2009 Succeeded byGustavo Dudamel Preceded byChristoph von Dohnanyi Principal Conductor, Philharmonia Orchestra 2008–2021 Succeeded bySanttu-Matias Rouvali Preceded byMichael Tilson Thomas Music Director, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra 2020–present Succeeded byincumbent