Jorge Mester was born in Mexico City on April 10, 1935, to Hungarian-immigrant parents. He studied conducting at the Juilliard School of Music, where his most important teacher was Jean Morel. He later took lessons from Leonard Bernstein and William Schuman. At his 1955 conducting debut, he led the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. He returned to Juilliard in 1958 to teach both conducting and literature, leaving in 1968. He rejoined the faculty later on (1976-1978 and 1980-1988); his students there included James Conlon, JoAnn Falletta, John Nelson, and Dennis Russell Davies. Mester's first important post came in 1961, when he was appointed music director of New York's Greenwich Village Symphony Orchestra. He served just one season, but by this time was busily exploring other vistas, including opera -- he had successfully debuted with Salome at the 1960 Spoleto Festival. In 1967 Mester was appointed music director of the Louisville Orchestra, and it was with this ensemble that he made more than 70 recordings, many of which drew international acclaim.
Mester served as music director of the Aspen Festival from 1970 until 1991 and was conductor of the ill-fated Kansas City Philharmonic from 1972 to 1975. Mester left his post in Louisville in 1979 to work with the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico. The latter part of Mester's career centered on two important positions, both of which he still held in 2007: he became music director of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra in 1984 and of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra in 1998.