The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra will expand gradually to meet top international standards following a surge in audience sizes and sponsorship, according to chief executive Timothy Calnin. Mr Calnin said the orchestra wanted to recruit six more full-time musicians over the next three years, boosting its ranks to 96. He said most of the world's top orchestras had more than 100 full-time musicians, with the optimal size about 105. The orchestra saw a 22 per cent rise in audiences last season, including a 74 per cent jump in season-ticket holders. Average attendance is now nearly 80 per cent, approaching the levels of overseas counterparts. Sponsorship jumped from just HK$3.5 million in 2003-04 to HK$26 million in the last financial year. Although the surge in revenue was partially offset by a cut in its government subsidy, which has fallen from HK$66 million five years ago to HK$56 million, the orchestra now has a budget of about HK$105 million a year. The improvements came after renowned conductor Edo de Waart took over the reins in 2004. 'After having a great maestro and a programme that is working well, we really have to invest in the orchestra itself,' Mr Calnin said. He said the extra hands were needed to support increasingly challenging performances. The orchestra hired 18 freelancers for its performances of Mahler's Symphony No3 in D minor, which ended last night. Mr Calnin said musicians should be offered better job security. At present, they are employed on two-year renewable contracts. Their salaries were also 'miles away' from other top teams, he said. New artists are paid an average of HK$27,000 a month. 'We are 25 per cent behind Sydney and about half away from the top teams in the US,' he said. 'We will try to work on that.'