Trained in the austere world of European modernism and enjoying a close relationship with the sunny city of Los Angeles, Salonen composes works that move freely between contemporary idioms, combining intricacy and technical virtuosity with playful rhythmic and melodic innovations. Three major retrospectives of Salonen's original work have been critical and public successes: at Festival Présences Paris in 2011, at the Stockholm International Composer Festival in 2004, and at Musica Nova, Helsinki in 2003. His pieces for symphony orchestra include Foreign Bodies (2001), performed this year by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Insomnia (2002), and Wing on Wing, which received its world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2004 and was a gift from the composer to the Los Angeles Philharmonic in honor of their new home. His Floof and LA Variations have become established modern classics. The latter is presented this fall at the New York Philharmonic and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and opens the Prague Symphony Orchestra's season.
In 2007 Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic in the first performance of his Piano Concerto, dedicated to Yefim Bronfman, who also premiered it. Salonen’s Violin Concerto, which premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Leila Josefowicz in 2009, won the 2012 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition and was released along with Salonen’s Nyx on Deutsche Grammophon. In 2016 Nyx will be choreographed by Wayne McGregor and performed by the Royal Ballet in London, while Salonen conducts. 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. The campaign included a new recording of the Violin Concerto, mastered at Abbey Road. His most recent composition, Karawane, which premiered during his time as Creative Chair at the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, uses the dada poetry of Hugo Ball as the basis for a massive choral and orchestral work. Karawane will be performed this season by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic.
Salonen takes the Philharmonia Orchestra to the Edinburgh International Festival, the BBC Proms, on tour in Switzerland and France, and will lead the “Myths and Rituals” festival, an exploration of Stravinsky's work that continues into next season. Salonen and the Philharmonia have curated landmark multi-disciplinary projects, such as the award-winning RE-RITE and Universe of Sound installations, which allow the public to conduct, play, and step inside the Philharmonia with Salonen through audio and video projections. Salonen also drove the development of a much-hailed app for iPad, The Orchestra, which allows the user unprecedented access to the internal workings of eight symphonic works. In 2015 he addressed the Apple Distinguished Educator conference on the uses of technology in music education.
Salonen also performs frequently as a guest conductor of the world’s top orchestras. During the 2015-16 season, he appears with the North German and Bavarian radio symphony orchestras; the New York, Vienna, and Los Angeles philharmonics; the Orchestre de Paris, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Salonen is also an enthusiastic conductor of opera. In 2013 he led a new production of Strauss' Elektra directed by Patrice Chéreau at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Chéreau and Salonen previously collaborated on Janácek's From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera, which The New York Times described as "a milestone." And this season, he brings the production of Elektra, Chéreau's final project, to the Metropolitan Opera. At the Paris Opera, he conducts Bartók's Le Château de Barbe-Bleue and Poulenc's La Voix Humaine.
As the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years, Salonen is widely credited with revitalizing the organization and bringing the idea of the symphony orchestra into the 21st century. As Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote, "Salonen 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." He was instrumental in helping the orchestra to open their famed Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry. He also presided over countless premieres of contemporary work, began the Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissions Fund, made the orchestra one of the best attended and funded in the country, and became, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, an "open, communicative, imaginative artist—among the most beloved of our town and time." This season Salonen returns to Los Angeles to conduct Mahler, Beethoven, Tanguy, Poulenc, and Dutilleux, and Ravel's Mother Goose Suite with an installation by Ars Electronica Futurelab. He will also present Pelléas et Mélisande, following the great success of last year's semi-staged performances of Debussy's opera at the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Salonen has an extensive recording career. An album of Henri Dutilleux's Correspondances, recorded with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in the presence of the composer, was released in 2013 by Deutsche Grammophon on the composer’s 97th birthday. Also that year, Sony completed a project that began with Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic nearly 30 years ago: a two-disc set of the orchestral works of Lutosławski, released in what would have been the composer’s 100th year. In 2012 he recorded a disc of Saariaho's Passion De Simone with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Dawn Upshaw. Deutsche Grammophon has also released a portrait CD of Salonen’s orchestral works performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the composer, as well as a CD with Salonen's Piano Concerto and his works Helix and Dichotomie. The latter, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Yefim Bronfman, was nominated for a Grammy in 2009. A CD of five of his orchestral works is available on Sony. 2012 saw the release of his recording of Shostakovich's previously undiscovered opera prologue Orango with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2009 a new collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra's partner label, Signum, was launched with the release of a live recording of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder; other recent recordings with the Philharmonia on Signum include Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and Mahler's Sixth and Ninth symphonies. Salonen's 2008 recording of Schoenberg's Violin Concerto and Sibelius' Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra won a Grammy Award. Other recordings include a DVD of Kaija Saariaho's opera L'Amour de Loin, with the Finnish National Opera, as well as two CDs with Hélène Grimaud featuring works by Pärt and Schumann. The first CD recorded at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Salonen's recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was nominated for a Grammy in 2007.
Salonen is the recipient of many major awards, including the UNESCO Rostrum Prize for Floof in 1992 and the Siena Prize, given by the Accademia Chigiana in 1993; he is the first conductor to receive it. 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. In 1998 the French government awarded him the rank of Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Salonen was also honored with the Pro Finlandia Medal of the Order of the Lion of Finland and the Helsinki Medal. Most recently he was honored with the 2014 Nemmers Composition Prize, which includes a residency at the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University and performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. To date, 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.