British singer-songwriter Mika is a musical citizen of the world. The concert captured on the new video Sinfonia Pop took place at the Teatro Sociale in Como, Italy, where Mika was joined by a full orchestra led by conductor Simon Leclerc, who also wrote the symphonic arrangements for the 21 Mika compositions. A 16-member choir backed the singer up too, as he sang in multiple languages and bantered in fluent Italian to an adoring audience.
“Citizen of Europe” is actually a better term for Mika than “citizen of the world.” On his electronically arranged albums, just as in this orchestral setting, his style of music and showmanship suggest variously the tradition of Jacques Brel and Leonard Cohen (though with much more upbeat material) and of theater-grounded performers like (to take two opposite extremes) Sarah Brightman with her treacly bombast and Freddie Mercury with Queen’s outrageous, out-there rock. Why has Richard Marx never been a big Stateside hit? “Europop” speaks a presentational language that most Americans don’t really respond to. At its worst, it’s embodied in the galactically kitschy world of Eurovision. At its best, it’s – well – Mika.
None of that is to suggest that Mika isn’t his own man; he very much is. It’s just that he’s not the kind of performer who traditionally gains an enormous following in the U.S. I saw him in New York at a medium-sized club, backed by only two musicians (who were also terrible pre-show DJs). An enthusiastic crowd filled the room, but it was no opera house. The surprise guest? Kristin Chenoweth. ‘Nuff said.
As it turns out, Mika’s songs lend themselves naturally to orchestral treatment. His voice is an instrument of precision and sparkle as well as range, dancing between a supple tenor and a relaxed falsetto; with masterful vocal control, he sings with subtle power and finely tuned sensitivity against the orchestra and background singers. His pop albums burst with intricate arrangements, the songs built on standard pop chord changes and topped with graceful, theatrical melodies. All this makes a fine palette for symphonic treatment, and the result is a fine show, skillfully recorded and filmed.
A few of the arrangements skitter into preciousness. Also, as a songwriter Mika is too fond of one particular hackneyed chord progression; the four-chord sequence defines one of his greatest numbers, “Happy Ending,” but reappears in the very next song (“Origin of Love”) and again two numbers later (in “Elle Ma Dit” – which is, at least, in another language!).
But overall, Mika and Leclerc’s partnership turns out to be rich, witty, and creative. Some of the numbers are so good I wished they went on longer; but while the arrangements are new, they mostly hew to the their original radio-ready lengths. Among the standouts are the acrobatic “Grace Kelly,” the French-language “Boum Boum Boum,” the nimble march “Love Today,” the light-operatic “Over My Shoulder,” “Good Guys” with its expansive choir arrangement, and the finale, “Stardust” (a Mika original, not the Hoagy Carmichael standard).
The included interviews with Mika and Leclerc are quite interesting, especially the former, in which the star talks revealingly about the “textural subtlety and range you can achieve with a symphony orchestra,” and how Leclerc interpolated influences from the likes of Debussy and MGM movie soundtracks into the arrangements. Mika also speaks of how a singer-songwriter works with an orchestra, and how he has to prepare himself differently for a symphonic concert.
Leclerc talks about the genesis of the project, and how his own task was to reinvent the songs so they sound natural in an orchestral, completely non-electronic setting. Done, and with great success.
Mika’s fans should love Sinfonia Pop. It’s a superb performance by the artist in a setting that’s both physically and musically spectacular. Anyone interested in fruitful pop-orchestral fusions should appreciate it too. As to gaining its star a wider audience in the United States, where (nonmusical) citizens of the world are finding themselves more and more uncomfortable, I wouldn’t hold your breath.