Sylvain Cambreling was born in Amiens, France. He received his training at the Paris Conservatoire. He began his professional conducting career when he became deputy musical director at the Opéra Nouveau, Lyon in 1975, where he stayed until 1981.
In 1981 he was appointed general musical director of the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels. Between September 1993 and July 1997 Sylvain Cambreling was director and general musical director of the Frankfurt Opera, and at the same time artistic director of the concerts of the Museumgesellschaft, Frankfurt. Cambreling was voted Conductor of the Year for 1993/94 by the magazine Opernwelt and the Frankfurt Opera was named Opera House of the Year for 1995/96 under his direction.
Since 1985 Cambreling has conducted at every Salzburg Festival season. In 1999 he conducted the world premiere of Berio's Cronaca del luogo and La Damnation de Faust.
In addition to his activity as an opera conductor, Sylvain Cambreling has appeared with leading orchestras including the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, the Radio Orchestras of Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London and many more.
Since the outset of his career Cambreling has been an exponent of contemporary music, in 1976 becoming the permanent quest conductor of Ensemble InterContemporain. He regularly conducts the Ensemble Modern and holds the position of first guest conductor of the Klangforum Wien.
Cambreling was appointed chief conductor of the SWR Sinfonie-Orchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg in 1999.