Headed to Carnegie HallMar 01, 2022 ● By Diann Nichols
Jon Le Culpepper is active in various business ventures. The Frisco resident co-owns a residential real estate investment firm and is the co-founder/partner of an information technology company.
He has worked in the biopharmaceutical industry and is a founding board member of the Pride Frisco organization. He also spent three years studying to become a Catholic priest.
However, Culpepper, a first-generation Vietnamese American who has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, is also well known as the founder, artistic director and award-winning conductor of the Dallas Chamber Choir, a nonprofit performing arts organization established in 2014.
“I founded it out of this pure passion for choral music and what the choral arts do to convey emotions of empathy, compassion and a general love and affirmation of our humanity,” he explains of the choir. “It really builds community and is so fundamental to pretty much everyone. It is one of the quickest ways to unite all of the cultures and backgrounds of various people coming together and producing a unified sound. So, yeah, that's really part of the passion that I have for it.”
In 2023, Culpepper is slated to take the stage at the renowned Carnegie Hall in New York City, where he will guest conduct a choir and orchestral performance of Mozart’s sacred composition Vesperae Solennes de Confessore.
Not bad for someone who lacks what most consider traditional music training.
“Just to be invited and to be recognized for not my pedigree, but for the quality of music that we're able to bring about, and all of the emotions and good that we can bring with that high level of performance, is really quite an honor and a deep privilege for me as a nontraditional professional musician,” Culpepper says of the performance that is scheduled for June 25, 2023.
It is believed he will be the first Vietnamese American to conduct a professional choir and orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Coupled with the fact that he is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, he says, “It's the intersectionality of all of these different planes colliding at one of the most iconic music halls in the world.”
Over the years, he has parlayed his various career skills to become a respected conductor. “The trouble-shooting skills that I need in tech to be able to dive deep into a problem and then span back out to see the entirety of the situation are the same skills I need in choral music.” Conversely, he says, the skills he has developed through music – such as understanding intricate pieces and how they play together or against one another – have also helped him with his other business ventures.
A fellow founding member of the Dallas Chamber Choir, Mari Esabel Valverde says Culpepper “has a different perspective and approach to professional choir. I have worked with him on so many projects, and I respect him as any other member of the community working to make choral music.”
When it comes to making that music, Culpepper says he fashions concerts around various themes, such as with the 2019 Walden: Nature Speaks concerts that were performed at Moody Performance Hall and All Saints Catholic Church, both in Dallas. The concerts featured a nature theme and demonstrated the “movement of seeing how nature is very much a part of our humanity – not to be observed as another figure but really as integral to the cadences of our lives,” he explains. “We remember the times when we have experiences with our family enjoying nature. … The moments of our lives that are punctuated by these snapshots of nature and our experience with it. It's so integral and it's so intimate as well, and I really want to bring that out.”
He says he attempts to tap into emotions we all share – good and bad – to show joy as well as suffering and loss through music.
“There is a community of supporters of those who have lived these experiences. We may disagree on everything else – on our politics, on our worldview or whatever. But these lived experiences – the grief or the loss and suffering, or the joy and the happiness and the love – these are real human emotions that we all share. Tapping into that landscape is so rich for any type of programming that we want to do. It's not music just for music’s sake, but music to really deliver a message.”
Born in Saigon, Culpepper and his family emigrated to the United States when he was age 6, after the 1975 communist takeover of South Vietnam. Following a brief stay in the northeastern U.S., his family settled in Houston, where Culpepper quickly assimilated and learned his new language and culture. Still, as an only child and a first-generation Vietnamese American, he says he faced an internal struggle living between the two different cultures.
“Music has always provided me refuge and a place where I feel like I can belong,” he says. “No longer was I judged by the way I looked, whether or not I fit in, how I spoke. … I spent most of my childhood and teenage years trying to come to terms with who I am, negotiating between two very different cultures and wrestling with my faith and sexuality in that complex context while pursuing academic, social and musical interests. … Music became my companion.”
His parents often hosted dinner parties that included entertainment. At a young age, Culpepper would sing traditional Vietnamese folk songs. That is where the seeds for performing were sown. “When I was 16, I was very involved in the Vietnamese church community, particularly in the church choir. At that time, I had keyboard skills and would offer to play piano to accompany the choir. Then, when they needed a conductor and no one really was able to step up, I just stepped up and … the rest is history.”
Besides his work with the Dallas Chamber Choir, Culpepper is also a contract musician for various North Texas churches including All Saints Catholic Church, where he is a cantor. He’s also a former singer with the Dallas Bach Society, the Orpheus Chamber Singers and other area professional chamber groups.
Joe Rattan, a North Texas classical music and opera singer, says Culpepper has “a great aesthetic. I love his programming. I love what he does. He's a fine conductor, but he knows how to put a group together of strong singers and strong individuals. … As a singer, I really appreciate that because I think of the evocative images to get across an emotion or some idea that Jon’s trying to convey (through) the music.”
Performances in 2018 at All Saints Catholic Church, Moody Performance Hall and Cathedral of Hope (also in Dallas)commemorated the anniversary of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming college student who was robbed, beaten and left for dead (the story made headlines around the globe). Through the performances, Culpepper says he aimed to show not only the tragedy of Shepard’s senseless murder, but the continuance of bigotry and hate that still exists today. “No organization is immune to discrimination, to mistreatment and to injustice. … That in itself forms my purpose and my passion to program the way that I do for Dallas Chamber Choir.”
By drawing on human emotions, he says he wants audiences not only hear music, but also feel it.
“I think one of the things that Jon does really well is he connects emotionally with the singers,” Rattan says. “There's a real bond between the podium and the group, and I think when that happens, the audience becomes a part of it. They don't just listen to the music, they experience it.”
Culpepper’s unique approach to performances has been well-received by performers. Dr. Heather Hawk, a Dallas Chamber Choir founding member and singer, says, “I think people are choosing to be there because they genuinely love the music that he's doing. He draws in performers and educators and all kinds of people because of the type of music that he chooses. He's really inclusive.”
The invitation to guest conduct at Carnegie Hall came about through the American Choral Directors Association’s annual conference, which was held virtually. Culpepper and the Dallas Chamber Choir were discovered by a production company that produces concerts at various venues. The production company’s founder reached out to Culpepper with the guest-conductor offer.
“He is an inspirational leader and I’m so excited for his Carnegie Hall debut,” Hawk says. “I’m just really proud of his success. I think that the sky’s the limit for him.”
Since moving to Frisco three years ago with his husband, Justin, Culpepper has become active in the community and is continuing his work to help establish Pride Frisco. “What we care most about is community and our neighbors, locking arms with each other and moving forward. … We are stronger when we are looking and wanting to advance together to care about each other. I think that environment is ripe for a lot of learning and a lot of growth, and I'm very excited about that.”
Ultimately, Culpepper says he hopes to use music and the Dallas Chamber Choir to better the community.
“If I can affect … change in how a person feels in a positive manner, or in a more compassionate and empathetic manner, I think that serves the mission of our group. But it really is what fires me and what motivates me,” he says. “I'm passionate about doing really great music, but I'm also passionate about what are we doing for our community, because the whole point of the art is to inspire and to evoke emotions that really appeal to our better selves.”