Stephen Layton established himself in the 1990s as one of the leading young British choral conductors.
As a boy he was a chorister in the Choir of Winchester Cathedral, which provided him his early musical training. He then won a post as a music scholar at Eton College. He learned singing, music theory, harmony, piano, and organ, in addition to his other course work.
He decided on music as a career and in competitive auditions won the position of organ scholar of King's College, Cambridge, perhaps the most famous of the British university chapel choirs. In this capacity he received a full scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied music, in return for participating in the choir's musical activities. As such, he appeared on several recordings on the Decca and EMI labels, performed on the BBC, and made tours of Europe, the United States, and Japan.
His first major conducting appearance was at Cambridge, where he led the choir and an orchestra in Handel's Messiah, with soprano Emma Kirkby as one of the soloists, and conducted a university performance of Gluck's Orfée et Eurydice. Soon after graduation, he became the musical director of the Wokingham Choral Society, with which he has led performances of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, Poulenc's Gloria, and Tippett's A Child of Our Time.
While still at Cambridge, Layton formed a choral ensemble in 1986 for a concert at the King's College Chapel. The concert was successful, leading to the group's establishment as a permanent professional organization named Polyphony. It was initially an early music group, but has expanded its repertory to other periods of music and moved its base of operation to London, where Layton now primarily lives and works. Polyphony debuted in the 1995 BBC Henry Woods Promenade Concerts in a newer work, Arvo Pärt's Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (St. John Passion), with the Hilliard Ensemble, and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, with Les Musiciens du Louvre, and has returned to the Proms in subsequent years. Layton has conducted Polyphony in the world premiere of Oceanos by James Dillon (1996) and in Alfred Schnittke's Symphony No. 2 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall. Layton has led Polyphony in several recordings on the BMG Catalyst and Hyperion labels. These include MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross, which won the Mercury Music Prize, choral music of Pärt, music from Percy Grainger's Jungle Book, and Rutter's Requiem.
Layton is also musical director of the Holst Singers and records with them on Hyperion. These have included the world premiere recording of Christ's Nativity by Benjamin Britten, one of the many forgotten Britten works that have been edited and released by the Britten Estate. He led the Holst Singers on some of the releases of Graham Johnson's complete Schubert song series. In addition, Layton is principal guest conductor of the Danish National Radio Choir and chief conductor of the Netherlands Chamber Choir. Layton has also directed the BBC Singers, and the London Schubert Chorale. He is also music director of London's famous Temple Church. In 2009, he became principal conductor and artistic director of the City of London Sinfonia.
His operatic debut was in 2000, conducting the English National Opera in a staged production of Bach's St. John Passion. He has conducted choral and orchestral repertory with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and the Istanbul Symphony Orchestra. He has often appeared on British and European television, and has toured in Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong.