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Orquestral manoeuvres in the Algarve

Among the thousands who fly from these shores each week to take the air in the sunny Algarve -- I was one of them myself only recently -- the thought that it might also be a cultural destination would hardly spring to mind. The music of the concert hall seems an unlikely accompaniment to life in the villas and the holiday apartments by the beaches.

But the region in the south of Portugal has a permanent population of almost half a million -- the same as a sizable city. This, together with a view that the provision of musical excellence could prove an additional tourist attraction, prompted the foundation of the Algarve Orchestra. Next month notches up its 1,000th concert. Next year, it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Portugal's leading conductor, Álvaro Cassuto, was Orquestra do Algarve's first musical director. He cast his recruitment net wide, targeting a young group of international musicians.

More than 800 applied, 100 were auditioned and 31 were selected, a dynamic band that quickly established its reputation, not least through a series of recordings with the Naxos label.

These showcased not only a vibrant new orchestra but the music of composers rarely recorded. João Domingos Bomtempo, a direct contemporary of Beethoven, was the first Portuguese to compose a symphony. The first CDs feature the two he wrote.

There's also an outing for the Basque, Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, who, like Bomtempo, straddled the period between the Classical and the Romantic, and was acclaimed as a composer of opera in his time.

The orchestra has come a long way in its short life. A measure of its burgeoning status was the fact that of the seven orchestras in Portugal, it was the Orquestra do Algarve that was invited to lead the concert celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007.

Defying convention, they're heard in more than just concert halls: They stage morning recitals for schools and they play at the big hotels as well.

There are the open-air venues, too. They went for a novel connection with golf, putting on a programme of Handel and Haydn on the 18th green at Vale do Lobo, and it proved so popular it lives on as the Algarve Orchestra's annual Concert on the Course.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning ghamilton@independent.ie

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