Jukka-Pekka Saraste established himself as a leading conductor of his generation at a remarkably early age. He is particularly known for his interpretations of Mozart and of twentieth-century classics, particularly new Finnish music.
He studied piano and violin at the Lahti Conservatory. His teachers encouraged him to consider conducting when he was as young as twelve years old. After graduating from the Conservatory in 1978 he continued his conducting studies while playing professionally as a violinist in the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
That orchestra gave him his chance to have a conducting debut on their podium at the age of twenty-three. In 1981, he also won the first prize of the Scandinavian Conducting Competition. The Helsinki Philharmonic invited him to lead several of their concerts on its important North American tour of 1982. He repeated this feat when the orchestra toured China in 1985.
He also founded the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, a group devoted mainly to contemporary music. This gained him considerable international recognition for his informed and exciting choices of new music.
His biggest breakout year was 1987. In that year he was appointed as principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. His tenure with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (until 1991) saw him lead it on important tours throughout the British Isles and North America, including a series of performances at New York's Carnegie Hall.
He also brought the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra to the Edinburgh Festival, and has toured with it to Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany, the United Kingdom and, several times, to Vienna. His first appearance there with the orchestra, in 1993, has led to several return trips.
In 1994 he became Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. This is a major orchestra that has varied in quality over the years and, before Saraste, never had a regular recording contract. Saraste brought it to one of its highest points. He also brought it a contract with Finlandia Records.
He began his connection with Finlandia with a complete set of Sibelius Symphonies, recorded by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in St Petersburg, Russia in 1995. Previously, he had made records with the Virgin Classics, BIS, Classic for Pleasure, Conifer, Ondine, Simax, and Decca labels. His exclusive contract with Finlandia began in 1995 and included both the FRSO and the Toronto SO, and brought both to a major international record company, since Finlandia is owned by the giant American media firm Warner Classics.
He has been credited with bringing a large and diverse audience to the Toronto Orchestra's home of Roy Thompson Hall. Their first recording for Finlandia, of orchestral music by Modest Mussorgsky, won a nomination for the Juno Award, Canada's recording academy prize. He frequently takes the Toronto Symphony to Carnegie Hall.
Known for most of his career for incisive, energetic performances, he has stated that he is changing his approach as a result of studying the recordings of great conductors of the past such as Toscanini and Furtwängler. He says that in their day, conductors led the broad outlines of the work and left the orchestra's principal players in charge of their respective sections, generating "an exciting kind of friction, combining sizzling energy with the broad outline." He now strives for a broad sound and more rubato.
He left his Toronto and Finnish Radio a positions in 2001. He was principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony from 2002-2005, and joined the Oslo Philharmonic in 2006, making videos of Sibelius symphonies with that orchestra. In 2010, Saraste also became principal conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln.