Stockholm welcomes Salonen: the prestigious Polar Music Prize was awarded in Sweden on May 21, 2024

Photo: Annika Berglund/Polar Music Prize
Author Yulia Savikovskaya
Category Columnists, Culture, Lifestyle, News, People, Town
Date May 28 2024
Reading Time 3 min.

Stockholm welcomes Salonen: the prestigious Polar Music Prize was awarded in Sweden on May 21, 2024

The award ceremony for the prestigious Polar Music Prize took place on 21 May 2024 in Stockholm.The Polar Music Prize was founded in 1989 by the producer and manager of the Swedish band ABBA Stieg Andersson as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Music. It is usually awarded to a representative or representatives of, on the one hand, popular music and, on the other hand, classical music. Similarly to the Nobel Prize, the award is given to the laureates by the King of Sweden and is followed by a lavish banquet. The laureates also appear before the public in an interview with Swedish journalists, talking for an hour about their lives and careers. Both the ceremony itself and the talks preceding it are broadcast on the award’s YouTube channel, and are available for public viewing afterwards. Previous winners of the Polar Music Prize in classical music category include composers Arvo Pärt and Kaija Saariaho, composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, opera director Peter Sellars, conductor Valery Gergiev, singers Cecilia Bartoli, Renée Fleming and Anna Netrebko, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the instrumental ensembles Kronos, Ensemble Intercontemporain and others.

The 2024 award in the popular music category went to American composer, producer, arranger and guitarist Nile Rodgers (1952), co-founder (with Bernard Edwards) of Chic, recipient of six Grammy Awards and producer of albums by Madonna, Mick Jagger, Duran Duran, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, as well as the composer of soundtracks for several films. The 2025 award in classical music category went to Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (1958), who currently works as the Music Director of San Francisco Symphony until 2025, having announced in 2024 that he would not renew his contract with this prestigious American orchestra due to divergent views on the orchestra’s future between Salonen and the orchestra’s management.

During the 2024 Polar Music Prize ceremony the following words were said about the Finnish conductor and composer: “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”.

Stockholm welcomes Salonen: the prestigious Polar Music Prize was awarded in Sweden on May 21, 2024 | London Cult.
© Andrew Eccle

On 30 June 2024, Salonen will be 66 years old, and he still seems ready for change and innovation. Born in Helsinki in 1958, a pupil of the renowned Finnish conducting pedagogue Jorma Panula, a graduate of the Sibelius Academy, and a former attendee of Ilya Musin’s masterclasses, Esa-Pekka Salonen has had a dizzying conducting career since the early 1980s. He has led several leading symphony orchestras both in the USA (Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony) and in Europe (Swedish Radio Symphony, Philharmonia Orchestra of London). In the last decade his active collaboration with the Finnish National Opera was also planned, as Salonen was scheduled to conduct the The Ring of Nibelung tetralogy and also supervised the digital AR and AI installation in Helsinki, but due to the 2020 pandemic, Salonen only conducted Das Rheingold in August-September 2019. With his American and London orchestras, Salonen has performed at the Salzburg Festival, the Aix-en-Provence Festival, the Lucerne Festival, the Verbier Festival and at other important classical music events.  In 2003 Salonen founded the Baltic Sea Festival, which takes place annually in Stockholm, so the musician does not only come to this city to receive prestigious awards, as he did now. As of 2019, Salonen is also a tutor and a menor at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, taking several conducting students every two years and allowing them to actively participate in his tours by assisting him during concerts.

Stockholm welcomes Salonen: the prestigious Polar Music Prize was awarded in Sweden on May 21, 2024 | London Cult.
Photo: Annika Berglund/Polar Music Prize

In the classical music world, Salonen has been recognised as a lifelong advocate of contemporary classical music. In his youth he and his friends, Finnish composers Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, formed the group Ears Open (“Korvat auki”) to promote and compose contemporary music. During his career  Salonen conducted premieres by such composers as John Adams, Samuel Adams, Louis Andriessen, Anna Clyne, John Corigliano, Kaija Saariaho, Anders Hillborg, Colin Matthews, Franco Donatoni, Magnus Lindberg, Richard Dubugnon, Marc-Anthony Turnage and others. At one time, Salonen oversaw Apple’s Sync project, where researchers explored the effects of music on the human brain.

As a composer, Salonen has also won major prizes – for example, the Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition in 2012 for his violin concerto, premiered by Leila Josefowicz, and the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition in 2014. He has been composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, and conducted his own Organ concerto in 2023 in Berlin, Helsinki, Paris and Los Angeles, with the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral’s leading organist Olivier Latry being the soloist.  

Stockholm welcomes Salonen: the prestigious Polar Music Prize was awarded in Sweden on May 21, 2024 | London Cult.
Esa Pekka Salonen. Photo: Annika Berglund/Polar Music Prize

During the public talk preceding the award, that was moderated by the Swedish Radio Orchestra Director Cilla Benkö, Esa-Pekka Salonen joked a lot in his usual sarcastic manner and spoke in a user-friendly language about his love of classical music, sharing stories about the first time he heard a pop reworking of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and how only his mum and the janitor listened to his first magnum opuses. Salonen also took time explaining why music affects the psyche over time, rather than in the short-term, and why its effects are not similar to a brain boost we receive while eating a caramel. It is Salonen’s firm belief that his best concert and the peak of his career are still ahead of him. Apparently, the Finnish conductor and composer expects to follow yet another path in his musical life and surprise everyone, so the world is eagerly waiting to see with which orchestra he will decide to work after 2025. It is also possible that behind-the-scenes negotiations have already taken place and we will soon find out about his new status as a composer and conductor.

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