According to the Boston Globe Esa-Pekka Salonen has 'a kind of complete musicianship rarely encountered today.' Salonen has indeed forged a reputation as a world class conductor and an esteemed composer. He is currently the principal conductor and Artistic Advisor for theLondon Philharmonic Orchestra and Conductor Laureate for theLos Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He is probably more well known as a composer, working with many professional ensembles over the years and premiering many works including his own. He has, since 2000, given himself more time to compose and his career as a composer is now just as important. He would surely make the point, and rightly so, that he sees himself as an artist first and foremost and whatever activity stems from this, be it composing or conducting, are but two sides of the same coin.
Esa-Pekka Salonen entered the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in 1973. He studied horn there with Fransman and graduated in 1977. He founded the Ears Open collective in this year together with fellow Finnish composersMagnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. He was also a founding member of the Toimii! ensemble These were ensembles devoted to the playing of avant-garde music formed with fellow students at the time. Following his studies he undertook private lessons in composing with Rautavaara and in conducting with Jorma Panula. This led him to participate in conducting courses in Darmstadt and Siena and his professional debut as a conductor came in 1979 with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
This launched him on the international stage as a conductor with a series of collaborations, which began with a very successful production of Alban Berg's 'Wozzeck' with the Swedish Royal Opera. In 1983 he was invited to conduct Mahler 's 3rd Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. These projects brought him immediate acclaim and he was appointed principle conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1985. He stayed in this role until 1994. He was also the principal guest conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1984 and of the Philharmonia from 1985 to 1995. These appointments set him up as one of the major features of Scandinavian musical life. He has also worked with chamber groups in Scandinavia and London, with the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra, Avanti! Chamber Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta.
The success of his European career propelled him across the Atlantic to work with theLos Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1984. He became the musical director of the orchestra in 1992 and since then has, according to the New Yorker, '...turned the Los Angeles Philharmonic into the most intellectually lively orchestra in America. … the metamorphosis of the Philharmonic was Salonen’s doing, and he thereby gained a place among the visionary conductors of American musical history."
This puts him in line with the long list of European artists finding a new home in the musical culture in America such asStravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartók. During his time in the orchestra he has been instrumental in programming new work alongside standard 20th Century masterpieces. This has not come without controversy of course. He helped the orchestra to become established in their new Walt Disney Concert Hall, established the Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissions Fund and made the orchestra in L.A. one of the best-attended and well-funded orchestras on the continent. The Los Angeles Times describes Salonen as 'an open, communicative, imaginative artist—among the most beloved of our town and time'.
Salonen has had a more incremental growth and success as a composer. His works are relatively few but it is clear that he will continue with his output of what have been described as truly original pieces, reflective of his great skill and sensitivity as an artist. Salonen was part of the modern scene of composition in Finland after his graduation along with his internationally acclaimed peers,Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. He was trained in 'the austere world of European modernism'. This statement from his website implies a certain disillusionment with modernism in Europe inspiring him to look beyond. His early works progressed from neo-romanticism to an embracing of modernism.
His journey across the Atlantic was more than just a physical one. His musical language followed, with a look towards American minimalism. He felt the canon of European modernism melt away as he embraced the music closer to his heart, being especially drawn to the work of John Adams. He felt that his education was a series of negatives; avoidance of melody harmony and rhythmic pulse. Meanwhile in the States, he felt an artistic freedom to pursue his own voice and these elements came back to play a crucial role in his work.
Before the 1980s he composed a number of chamber works premiered in Helsinki among his peers. In 1980 his Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra was performed by Pekka Savijoki and the Turku City Orchestra. It was taken up again by the Finnish Radio Symphony in 1981 in Helsinki. It is his first major work for large forces which foreshadow a number of orchestral pieces which have enjoyed major success.
A breakthrough chamber work was 'Floof' for solo voice and up to 6 players. It was awarded the UNESCO Rostrum Prize in 1992. It is a spectacular showpiece with dazzling virtuosity and humour which at times borders on the absurd. This interest in virtuosity can be related to his artistic vision as a whole, his admiration of the driving force and physicality of rhythm in Adams for example. He is quoted as saying 'Musical expression is bodily expression, there is no abstract cerebral expression in my opinion. It all comes out of the body.'
In the 1990s Salonen concentrated on orchestral works such as 'Mimo II' and 'Giro'. He considers his 'LA Variations' his personal breakthrough piece. The piece builds on rhythmic ideas much closer to John Adams and contains elements of all his experience, dazzling virtuosity and an intricate structure. The piece was an instant success and has enjoyed over 80 performances worldwide.
Salonen’s Violin Concerto was premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Leila Josefowicz in 2009 and won the 2012 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. It was released along with Salonen’sNyx on Deutsche Grammophon in 2012. In 2015Nyx will receive its UK premiere from Alan Gilbert and theNew York Philharmonic at the Barbican Centre. In spring 2014, the Violin Concerto was the inspiration for an international ad campaign for iPad, which featured Salonen as composer and conductor, Leila Josefowicz and the Philharmonia.
Salonen has received many awards, including the UNESCO Rostrum Prize for his compositionFloof in 1992, and the Siena Prize, given by the Accademia Chigiana in 1993. The Royal Philharmonic Society presented him with its Opera Award in 1995 and its Conductor Award in 1997. Salonen was awarded the Litteris et Artibus medal by the King of Sweden in 1996. In 1998 the French government awarded him the rank ofOfficier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres and he was also honored with the Pro Finlandia Medal of the Order of the Lion of Finland. In 2003 the Sibelius Academy in Finland gave him an honorary doctorate, and two years later Salonen won the Helsinki Medal. He won the 2014 Nemmers Composition Prize, which will include a residency at the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University and a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Salonen has received seven honorary doctorates in four different countries.Musical America named him its Musician of the Year in 2006, and he was elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010. He is Artistic Director and cofounder of the Baltic Sea Festival, an event promotes unity and environmental awareness among the Baltic countries.
Header image courtesy of LA Phillharmonic Long image 1 by Betty Freeman, courtesy of LA Phillharmonic Long image 2 by Katja Tähjä