1. Discovering music
2. Composer & conductor
3. International recognition
4. Recordings & collaborations
5. Innovations
6. A new generation
2024 Laureate


The 2024 Polar Music Prize is awarded to Esa-Pekka Salonen from Finland. His breakthrough came in 1983 when he conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. As a composer, Esa-Pekka shares many similarities with Gustav Mahler. They have been equally prominent both as conductors and composers, and characterised by the same artistic curiosity. On stage and in the studio, Esa-Pekka Salonen embraces technological innovations, not simply for the sake of experimentation, but as a way to help people discover great music in the constantly changing world of media. Esa-Pekka Salonen is a master of tone in soul and heart. With his resolute baton, he not only guides symphony orchestras but points the way for all classical music.


Discovering music

Esa-Pekka Salonen was born on June 30, 1958 in Helsinki, Finland. His first contact with classical music was through Finnish pop artist Kirka, who had done a pop version of Beethoven’s 9th symphony ”Ode to joy” which caught the young Salonen's attention.

He also got to hear Olivier Messiaen for the first time through his dad’s new hi fi system and got overwhelmed. This inspired him to study and write music.

Kirka performing in Finland in the 1960s.

Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, 2018

Musical Studies

Young Esa-Pekka Salonen started studying French Horn for Holger Fransman at the age of 11. Fransman is considered the father of the Finnish school of horn playing.

"I will never forget my first French horn lesson with Holger Fransman. For an eleven-year old boy the great Finnish musician and teacher was an awesome sight: an impressive moustache and fiery eyes. He used to call me Mr Salonen despite my age, and only after I could play to the top c with some accuracy did he suggest we start addressing each other by first names." – Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wise Music Classical programme notes.

He moved on to study at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and got degrees in horn (1977) and conducting (1980). He studied composition in Italy for Niccolo Castiglioni and Franco Donatoni.

French horns

Composer and teacher Franco Donatoni, 1994

"If music can sound like this, I want to write music!"

– Young Esa-Pekka Salonen hearing Olivier Messiaen for the first time

The composer

Esa-Pekka Salonen is first of all a composer. He started out in the 70s while still studying. During the '80s, Salonen composed tape music, as well as music with electronics and instruments combined. Works written during this period include Baalal, a radiophonic piece, and Yta (Surface), a series of experimental compositions.

Works 1978-1992

Composer in Residence at the Berliner Philharmoniker – Interview

The Toimii Ensemble

He was part of the founding of the experimental new music ensemble Toimii in 1980, with Finnish composers Magnus Lindberg, Otto Romanowski, Anssi Karttunen, Kari Kriikku and Juhani Liimatainen, all connected to the Sibelius Academy.

Toimii (meaning “It works” in Finnish) was formed to be a laboratory where composers, instrumentalists and other artists could work on new ways of creating music and improvising. Together with fellow Laureate Kaija Saariaho’s Korvat auki! (Open your ears!) they represented the new Finnish avant garde.

KRAFT by Magnus Lindberg, Written for Toimii and a Symphony Orchestra.

Floof, composed for Toimii in 1988. This owrk gave him the UNESCO Rostrum Prize in 1992.


Salonen made his debut as a conductor in Finland in 1979 with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Salonen made a sensational London debut in 1983 conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 at the Royal Festival Hall. This was, in fact, a last minute replacement for Michael Tilson Thomas that opened up for Salonens international career.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2017

A concert with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in 2023.

Conquering Los Angeles

After the stunning debut in London in 1983 he was was invited in 1984 to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and became the principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia.

He released recordings of Messiaen and Sibelius and Nielsen violin concerts with Cho-Liang Lin.

As a result of his highly successful performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1989, he was invited to become the orchestra's music director. He assumed that post between 1992 and 2009, becoming, at that time, the orchestra's youngest music director.

The Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry, home of the "LA Phil." (Source: Photo by Carol Highsmith)

”Our function is to bring to life. To bring to life takes communication between the conductor and the orchestra, and the more immediate, personal, honest communication with the orchestra, the better it goes. That’s my experience.”

– Esa-Pekka Salonen on conducting

Three decades of recognition

In the 90s, Salonen began to receive multiple awards: he was the first conductor to receive the Siena Prize, given by the Accademia Chigiana, in 1993. In 1995 he received the Royal Philharmonic Society's Opera Award and two years later, its Conductor Award. Salonen was awarded the Litteris et Artibus medal, one of Sweden's highest honors, by the King of Sweden in 1996 and in 1998 the French government awarded him the rank of Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

His Violin Concerto won the 2012 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. He was the recipient of the 2014 Nemmers Composition Prize, which included a residency at the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University and performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Also in 2014, he was awarded the Gloria Artis Medal for Merit to Culture by Poland’s Minister of Culture.

In 2020, he was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.

Rehearsing with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in 1997

Ordre des Arts et des Lettres


He founded the Stravinsky festival in Paris 1996 with the late Pierre Boulez, another Polar Music Prize Laureate.

He co-founded, and from 2003 until 2018 served as the Artistic Director of, the annual Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm at Berwaldhallen, his "home away from home" when in Stockholm – beside the Philharmonia Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic he is also the Conductor Laureate of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Polar Music Prize Laureate of 1996 Pierre Boulez.

Esa-Pekka Salonen at the 2023 Baltic Sea Festival at Berwaldhallen in Stockholm. (Source: Mattias Ahlm, Sveriges Radio)

The SF Symphony

Esa-Pekka Salonen became the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony in 2020.

After joining the SF Symphony in 2020, Salonen has defined his tenure with an impulse to expand and embrace the possibilities of the orchestra.

(Source: Photo by Clive Barda)

(Source: Photo by Benjamin Suomela)

Interior of the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Esa-Pekka Salonen has an extensive and varied recording career, both as a conductor and composer. With the San Francisco Symphony, he has released recordings of Béla Bartók’s three piano concertos with Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Pentatone, as well as spatial audio recordings of Polar Music Prize Laureate Györgi Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds, Lux Aeterna, and Ramifications on Apple Music Classical.

Other recordings include Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, recorded with Lise Davidsen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin and Dance Suite, also with the Philharmonia and Stravinsky’s Perséphone, featuring Andrew Staples, Pauline Cheviller and the Finnish National Opera.

Salonen talking about Ligeti's "Clocks and Clouds"

Stravinsky's Perséphone


His compositions appear on releases from prestigious classical labels such as Sony, Deutsche Grammophon, and Decca: his Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman, Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz, and Cello Concerto with Polar Music Prize Laureate Yo-Yo Ma all appear on recordings conducted by Salonen himself, confirming the first reason why he started conducting: so that someone could conduct what he himself composed.

He has collaborated with innovative Polar Music Prize Laureate Peter Sellars for more than 30 years on several productions, including Tristan & Isolde at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and for his final performance at the Los Angeles Opera.

Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka Salonen on Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" and "Symphony of Sounds."

"Jag vill se min älskade komma från det vilda" – a collaboration with Swedish artist Eva Dahlgren and Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, 1995

Experimenting with multimedia

Esa-Pekka Salonen has always had a progressive view on the development of music, just like predecessors and peers Boulez, Stockhausen, Saariaho among others.

New technologies and multimedia have been part of his desire to experiment, for example together with Swedish composer and musician Jesper Nordin. They share an interest for how digital and acoustic orchestras can collaborate and have used Jesper Nordin's Gestrument to bring those ideas to life together with Swedish clarinet player Martin Fröst in "Emerging from Currents and Waves."

In 2023, Nordin and Salonen premiered Nordin’s “Convergence” where Salonen conducts simultaneously the SF Symphony and a virtual orchestra.

Emerging from Currents and Waves, Baltic Sea Festival 2018

Jesper Nordin explaining his "Gestrument" at Polar Talks in 2018.


Salonen is a teacher at the Colburn School and has launched a new, "hands on" programme for young conductors. The programme wishes to help young conductors to create a sustainable career and practice with top level symphonic orchestras.

Esa-Pekka Salonen talking about the Negaunee Conducting Program.

"Conducting is a particular skill to teach, not like learning an instrument where you can go home and practice on your instrument, conductors don’t have that luxury, your practice happens publicly, that is the biggest challenge in developing a conducting career in the early stages."

Esa-Pekka Salonen on teaching conducting

A new approach

Salonen has throughout his career worked on the development of classical music on many different levels, from promoting avantgarde to leadership models. In San Francisco since 2020 he has started series of collaborations across disciplines and practices that unite the Symphony’s musicians, administration, and facilities staff into a singular engine dedicated to engaging classical music in novel ways.

Together with Gustavo Dudamel and Rafael Payare he has established the California Festival, an inter-institutional celebration in the whole state of California for new music and young composers.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has also launched
a residency-based touring model with an eye to a future of climate-conscious community building.

Payare, Salonen & Dudamel – founders of the California Festival.

Article written in 2024.
Sources: official bio, Wikipedia,,, Dagens Nyheter
Header photo by Minna Hatinen

Anders Hillborg congratulating his friend to the Polar Music Prize 2024

Fellow Laureate Peter Sellars congratulating Salonen to the Polar Music Prize 2024

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