Going into Saturday night’s concert featuring Irish singer and former Celtic Woman member Chloë Agnew, Long Beach State Studio Orchestra music director/conductor and graduate student Robert Luke Martin had some nerves.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘she’s sung with some of the best orchestras in the world,’” he said. “I’ve seen her sing with the Buffalo Philharmonic, then go to the Baltimore Symphony. I hope we can … reach that standard.”
When it comes to Agnew, Martin had about a decade of fandom and personal stakes to work through. In his freshman year of college, he found himself on all female Irish musical ensemble Celtic Woman’s mailing list, where they promoted a new live DVD.
“I saw the first piece and I’m like, ‘Holy shit,’” he said. “Because it’s Irish music, but it’s orchestrated.”
This pushed Martin head-first into the world of traditional Irish music, which led to a move to Belfast and his founding of the Irish Video Game Orchestra. Now about to complete his second master’s degree in instrumental conducting at LBSU, this moment seems to have come full-circle for him.
“I’m trying not to get super schmaltzy about this,” he said. “[But] Chloë Agnew… probably had a major impact on my career direction.”
Meanwhile, Agnew had her own reasons why this particular show mattered so much to her. She spent a decade performing with Celtic Woman covering those traditional tunes and soundtrack hits. In her time since leaving the group to go solo in 2013, songwriting became a much higher priority, as shown on her 2018 EP “The Thing About You.”
A turn toward 2010s pop in production and instrumentation, the EP gave Martin the task of translating a handful of Agnew’s compositions for a 25-piece orchestra at LBSU. Twenty years into her career, she said she considers this new territory.
“I think he’s done wonderful arrangements,” Agnew said. “It’s a really clever fusion.”
Her meeting the Studio Orchestra, comprised mostly of music majors, gave the show a whole new dynamic as well.
“They’re obviously very enthusiastic. They’re all avid music players and listeners and music lovers,” she said. “It’s always really, really refreshing to come into a space like that, where a lot of this music is new to them, so there’s that excitement in the room.”
That excitement came through clearly on stage. For a concert at a college music department, the feeling at the Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall never came off as overly serious, or alienating to those not well-versed in orchestral music. Between songs, Agnew told charming stories about adjusting to life in Los Angeles and gave the audience instructions on how to sing along with her original English-Gaelic hybrid “The Gathering.”
Adding onto the accepting atmosphere, Agnew and Martin stuck to the last couple decades for covers. Highlights included the massive swells of “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt, “A Million Dreams” from The Greatest Showman and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the latter complete with Martin holding down the penny whistle while orchestra member Summer Wilson conducted. The energetic high point of the night came with a theatrical rendition of the aptly chosen 1995 Garth Brooks cut “Ireland.”
At one point, after the title track to “The Thing About You,” Agnew found herself wiping away tears.
“Oh my heart, I didn’t expect to get so emotional,” she said from the stage.
The sentimental nature of the performance also came through when she gave her thank you’s at the end.
“There’s a very few generous who are people of their word,” she said of Martin, before explaining how he first proposed the idea of this performance over a year ago.
Reflecting on this show, as the first of its kind for the relatively new Studio Orchestra, Martin plans to make these performances a regular event, even after he graduates this spring.
“This is something that the students will put on their CV’s,” he said. “Like on the resumes, ‘I played with Chloe Agnew from Celtic Woman for one of her shows.’ For someone this age, that’s a huge deal.”
Following the show, the crowd was left with a similarly hopeful feeling for where this could lead.
“Obviously the school puts on good shows and has high-quality musicians all the way around,” said audience member Stephen McNamara. “So, they can do that. They can back established artists and sound good.”