Born in 1958 in Helsinki, Finland; son of a banker and a homemaker; married Jane Price (a violinist), 1991; children: two daughters. Education: Attended the Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, beginning c. 1973; studied with private teachers in Italy. Addresses: c/o Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, The Music Center, 135 North Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is the boy wonder of symphony conducting. The music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen is young, handsome, and going out of his way to revitalize the 200-year-old European symphonic tradition. Los Angeles Magazine's Richard Pietschmann called Salonen "a mesmerizing conductor with catlike moves on the podium; a crowd pleaser with looks, charisma and flair; and a musician's musician who enjoys a profound rapport with his orchestra.... He's experimental, flexible, creative, approachable and understanding of his role [in LA] as head cheerleader, top fund raiser and reluctant matinee idol. Most of all, perhaps, he possesses that rare ability to pack 'em in no matter what's on the program."

Born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1958, Salonen was the only child of two loving and nurturing parents. His father, a banker, and his mother, a homemaker, were encouraging but not domineering. Salonen's godfather, who didn't know a great deal about children, taught the young boy to read at the ripe age of three. That changed Salonen's life. Not interested in the piano, which his mother started him on a year later, he waited and tried the recorder at age nine. Salonen's home was always filled with the sounds of music, and he kept trying different instruments until one stuck. After the recorder, he tried the French horn; then he gave the piano another chance--his mother had been smart enough not to push it on him in the first place.

At age 15, Salonen became a horn and composition student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and later with private teachers Franco Donatoni and Niccolo Castiglioni in Italy. The self-professed troublemaker resisted authority but was eventually given the opportunity to lead a student performance of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel. Critics predicted big things from the 17-year-old conductor.

His true conducting debut came with the Finnish Radio Symphony in 1979. He was soon leading concerts and opera performances throughout Scandinavia. It was just a few years later, in 1983, that the break came that would catapult him to fame. With five days' notice, and as a virtual unknown in England--although rumors about a Finnish wonder preceded him--Salonen was asked to replace the ailing Michael Tilson Thomas in a major concert with the London Philharmonia.

The piece to be performed that evening was Gustav Mahler's extremely difficult Symphony #3. As Martin Bernheimer put it in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, "Salonen at 25 had not yet learned the meaning of fear." "I had never seen the score, so I went to the library and looked through it," Salonen told Bernheimer. He recalled thinking, "If it turns out not to be a major disaster, at least I could say I have conducted the Philharmonia once and go back to composing.... That was five days before the concert and three before the first rehearsal. I had never studied the piece. I had never conducted the orchestra. It was dangerous, like diving into a pool where one didn't know if there was water or not."

There was water, and Salonen made a huge splash. His success in London made him a star, and he garnered regular positions in Stockholm and Oslo as well as recording contracts and guest engagements with important orchestras throughout Europe. In fact, Ernest Fleischmann, executive vice president and managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, was so bowled over by the London performance that he immediately signed Salonen for a guest conducting appearance the following year.

Fleischmann had big plans for Salonen. He wanted him to become music director of the LA Philharmonic. Although talented, the young conductor was extremely inexperienced at the time, so Andre Previn took up the orchestra's reins instead. But the relationship with Previn was never a good one. Salonen signed on as music director beginning with the 1992-93 season. It was the LA Philharmonic's hope that he would breathe much-needed life into the orchestra. Having been led by nothing but guest conductors since Previn's departure in 1989, the Philharmonic had suffered. "But the case can also be made that the Philharmonic has lacked the passion of a world-class symphony longer than that," wrote Pietschmann in Los Angeles Magazine, "indeed, since [Zubin] Mehta left [in 1978]."

The media hype over Salonen's tenure in Los Angeles was huge. Teasing billboards were pasted all over the city. Newspaper headlines read "The Great White Hope," "The Maestro of Change," "LA's Fair-Haired Finn," and the like. Esa-Pekka Salonen was expected to be the Philharmonic's savior--and a breath of fresh air. Far from the usual maestro, Salonen could often be seen in jeans and a polo shirt. And he went out of his way to loosen up and vary the orchestra's repertoire, broadening the range of music accepted in LA as "classical." As he explained to Pietschmann, "I'll see how challenging I can get. The variety of things that we offer must be great. It's not always giving what we're expected to give.... [On the other hand,] I don't think we can win by calling classical music anything but what it is. This is f---ing classical music--and that's it. Either you like it or you don't." To Bernheimer, he insisted, "The task of our generation is to introduce new repertory, to let the repertory go forward. To perform our grandfathers' repertory is really not that interesting."

The risks that Salonen took paid off, even with the more rigid European audiences. According to various press releases, German reviewers praised the Philharmonic's 1994 European tour. "Since Salonen, this top-class orchestra from California is more brilliant than ever. Perfectionism reigns without any loss of identity. Virtuosity strikes sparks on every strand," gushed Berlin's Tagesspiegel. A writer for Die Welt noted: "It was obvious that Esa-Pekka Salonen radiated to his musicians a special inner tension that inspired them to veritable peak achievements." A contributor to the Rheinische Post of Dusseldorf suggested, "Since the engagement of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra has finally and deservedly entered the champion's league." And Cologne's Kolnische Rundschau offered, "The Los Angeles Philharmonic belongs to the best in the country, and among the leading orchestras in the world. Only a few top European orchestras can bear comparison with its exquisite tonal culture.... And ... their young Finnish music director Esa-Pekka Salonen [ranks among] the most sought-after podium stars of our time."

Salonen continually receives kudos for his performances--both live and recorded. He is one of the few living maestros who can sell a recording of standard repertoire on the strength of his name alone. He has made a point, however, of being sure his own compositions are not overshadowed by his conducting. As Bernheimer put it, "He carefully divides his professional time between his two callings. Most listeners find his colorful, often-witty compositions both orderly and accessible. Although the musical language--like the man--does not shrink from dissonance, it strives to balance the cerebral and the dramatic."

Salonen was indeed a savior to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and although he himself would bristle at the term--he shies away from the hype--he spends his time spreading the gospel about symphony music as far and as wide as he can. When not conducting the LA Philharmonic or guest conducting elsewhere, Salonen works with children from California's Santa Monica High School to Mexico's Tepoztlan Youth Symphony Orchestra. He is a hero to many; he even has groupies, but he is not doing all this for the publicity. "I'm concerned about the future because I have to be," he told Los Angeles Times contributor Mark Fineman. "[Today] Madonna is mainstream and classical music has gone underground and counterculture. I don't want to be the last generation of conductors, and [working with children] is the best way to guarantee continuity of interest." To Bernheimer he suggested, "Young people see sissy conductors in stupid posters and think, 'This is nothing for me.'... What music needs is a sense of danger."

by Joanna Rubiner

Esa-Pekka Salonen's Career

Made conducting debut with the Finnish Radio Symphony, 1979; gained international attention guest conducting the London Philharmonia Orchestra, 1983; made American debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1984; principal conductor, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, 1985-94; principal guest conductor, Philharmonia of London, 1985--; music director and conductor, Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1992--.

Esa-Pekka Salonen's Awards

Grammy Award, Cecilia Prize, Koussevitzky Award, and the 1986 Gramophone Award for best contemporary record for Lutoslawski's Symphony #3, 1986; Gramophone Award for Sibelius and Nielsen Violin Concertos, 1989; his original composition, Floof, chosen as best work at the 39th Annual International Rostrum of Composers in Paris, 1992; first conductor ever to win the Siena Prize of the Accademia Chigiana, 1993.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 16 years ago

Salonen is a fabulous conductor whose hold on the affections of Los Angeles audiences and critics alike is unique. Not since Giulini left has our orchestra aroused such enthusiasm. He is a hard act to follow! BUT our limited acquaintance with Gustavo Dudamel suggests that our orchestra will go from great to even greater. He has set Los Angeles, and just about every place else he has conducted his own youth orchestra or the local symphony orchestra on fire! Toscanini became famous when he conducted a travelling opera company in Rio de Janiero at the age of 19 and he kept growing and improving for over 75 years - the most remarkable prodigy the conducting world had ever seen. Maybe we have another one after all these years. I hope so!