The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra's music director, Samuel Wong, yesterday defended his decision to weed out 'incompetent' musicians and promised a revitalised orchestra that he said would 'make sparks fly'. Dr Wong was speaking two days after 12 Philharmonic musicians were fired. He said five players were told outright their contracts would not be renewed in September, while the rest failed a controversial music test. With what he called 'an enhanced orchestra', Dr Wong said the Hong Kong Philharmonic could achieve his goals. 'We are going to be omnipresent in the Hong Kong community,' said the 38-year-old ophthalmic surgeon, who turned to conducting in 1990. 'We are going to be a big artistic force. We are doing things very quickly and very aggressively and sparks are going to fly,' he said. The lay-offs were a difficult decision but necessary to breathe new life into the orchestra. 'As a doctor you can say I'm very used to making some very difficult decisions . . . and I bring this to the arts. Sometimes things have to be done; sometimes they are drastic but for the good and the health of the institution in the long run.' Speaking from his Manhattan flat, Dr Wong said he was buoyed by the initial response to his directorship. Attendances at concerts in the four months he had been at the helm were definitely up. January attendances alone were up by 50 per cent. 'This is only the start. We want to reach Hong Kong in a big way and in a substantial way,' he said. The orchestra has just bagged an international recording contract, but details will not be announced until next month. Also in the works are two live television concerts, a series of five-minute radio and television segments introducing music to the general public, international tours beginning in 2003, plus so-called Music and Wellness community concerts that will take orchestra members to schools, hospitals and hospices. Dr Wong said he had tried to deal with the issue of weeding out 'non-functioning' musicians 'quietly and with dignity'. All 12 of those sacked will keep their pensions. In the string section, four posts of nine left empty will be eliminated and the rest will be filled by new recruits. Dr Wong's sackings are less severe than those ordered by predecessors. David Atherton fired 14 musicians in 1991 in what the press called the 'St Valentine's Day Massacre'. In 1994, he fired veteran concert-master Marcus Lehmann, prompting 14 other players to vote with their feet by not renewing their contracts. And in the 1970s, music director Tung Ling sacked 16 musicians. Musicians in the Philharmonic have criticised the sackings as unfair and believe the management wants to get rid of local players and replace them with overseas musicians.