Building on a career as a Baroque recorder player and flutist, Giovanni Antonini became the conductor of the ensemble Il Giardino Armonico. With that group and others, he has applied historical-performance practices to repertory extending into the Romantic era. Antonini has been a leader in building the historical-performance movement in Italy, which had a sparse presence when he began his work.
Antonini was born in 1965 in Milan. He studied the flute at the Civica Sculoa di Musica there, and became interested in the recorder and in historical performance at the Centre de Musique Ancienne in Geneva, one of the first generation of programs in the field. He and a group of other students formed the Baroque orchestra Il Giardino Armonico in 1985, aiming to broaden awareness of historically informed performance practices. Antonini emerged as a leader of the group and began to conduct it in 1989. Under his direction, the group has concertized widely and collaborated with artists from both the historical-performance field (Christophe Coin, Giuliano Carmignola) and the mainstream (Katia and Marielle Labèque, Viktoria Mullova). A series of successful recordings on the Teldec label in the 1990s and early 2000s, specializing in Vivaldi and Bach, raised the group's profile, and by the 2010s it was one of the few among the few early historical-performance ensembles that had continued to flourish. The Vivaldi Album (2000), with Cecilia Bartoli, earned a Grammy Award, and Antonini has won several ECHO Klassik awards and a variety of other honors.
Beginning around 2005, Antonini began to conduct 19th century repertory as well, often applying insights gained from Baroque performance. This has gained him invitations to conduct various outside groups. Many of his recordings of symphonic repertory have been with the Basel Chamber Orchestra in Switzerland, but he has also led the Berlin Philharmonic (at the invitation of Simon Rattle) and many other major orchestras in Europe and North America, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the 2000s and 2010s, Antonini has emerged as an important operatic conductor, leading Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the La Scala company in his hometown as well as performances of Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto and Bellini's Norma (the latter in a new version), starring Bartoli, with Il Giardino Armonico. Many of his efforts in the 2010s have been absorbed by large recording projects for Classical-period instrumental music, including complete cycles of Beethoven's symphonies with the Basel Chamber Orchestra for the Sony Classical label, and a new "Haydn 2032" project with the same group, pairing Haydn's symphonies with little-known works by his contemporaries.