BOOK REVIEW: A MAN AND HIS MUSIC, An Autobiography of Angel Pena

by Rose Cruz Churma

In June 1987, to commemorate Philippine Independence Day, a concert was held at the Mamiya Theater for the Performing Arts by the Hawaii-Pacific String Quintet, where they performed the musical arrangements and original compositions of Angel Pena.

It is unfortunate that very little is remembered of that evening, nor of the talent that produced these musical compositions, except for this autobiography and a CD of the recording of the musical performance that night.

Tomas “Buddy” Gomez, who was then Consul General of the Philippines in Hawai’i instinctively knew that it was important to record the concert for posterity. It not only represented a preservation of Philippine art and culture but also showcased the talents of the Filipino.

After sending me a CD of the musical performance, his email in July 2021—before he left for his pilgrimage in Spain—expressed his interest in visiting old friends in Hawaii. It was not meant to be. It would be his last message to friends in Hawai’i.

Angel Pena joined the Honolulu Symphony in 1969 and for the next 20 years played as a double bassist, becoming the musical arranger for the symphony’s Starlight Concert Series.

In 1979 the Hawaii State Foundation of Culture and the Arts sponsored “Pamana ng Lahi” an all-Pena composition concert in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the sakadas of Hawaii.

Among Angel Pena’s prize-winning works are the well-loved “Igorot Rhapsody for Symphony Orchestra which won first prize in the 1960 National Symphonic Poem Composition Contest and the “Sonata for Double Bass and Piano”which he performed in 1971 at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

Like most autobiographies, the book starts with his genealogy and his family. Several chapters were devoted to his adventures as a professional musician, but the part that interested me the most was his memoirs of his Honolulu days.

He remembered how he auditioned for Maestro Robert La Marchina “who hired me right away to join the Honolulu Symphony.” He recalls arriving at the airport on March 4, 1969, when one of the Philippine consuls intercepted him at customs to facilitate his entry into the US without inspection (at the directive of then Consul General Trinidad Alconcel).

He described how his cousin, Vida, brought her schoolmate, Teresita Ramos (who would eventually be one of the professors at UHM) to give him a tour of Honolulu, including watching the dolphin show at Sea Life Park.

When Maestro Donald Johanos led the Honolulu Symphony in 1979,  he introduced a format where music and dance by different ethnic groups that comprise Hawaii were performed at the “Concert at the Waikiki Shell”.

He described how a local Filipino dance group called Pearl of the Orient (led by Pat and Orlando Valentin) performed a dance piece called “Maglalatik”. Orlando Valentin suggested that Angel Pena do the arrangement, instead of the symphony’s music arranger.

Maestro Johanos was so impressed with the arrangement that Angel Pena did most of the musical arrangements for the symphony after that. He notes that from 1979 to 1989, he had written 124 musical arrangements which he says should be at the library and catalog of the Honolulu Symphony.

Unfortunately, the Honolulu Symphony, which was established in 1900 was liquidated under Chapter 7 and ended its operations after 110 years. The following year, a group of businesspeople revived the symphony, naming it Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.

It bought out the bankrupt symphony’s assets and negotiated with the remaining musicians and opened a new season in the fall of 2011. What is not clear though, is whether the previous musical arrangements produced during the old symphony’s tenure survived.

In 1986, the musicians of the Honolulu Symphony staged a 15-week strike! Aside from getting heavily tanned from walking the picket line, and being saddled with mounting bills, Angel Pena’s string quintet compositions and arrangements of Filipino music were recorded through the initiatives of then-Consul General Tomas “Buddy” Gomez and Consul Leoncio “Jun” Cardenas.

The following year, the musical pieces were performed at a concert to commemorate Philippine Independence Day in June 1987.

Perhaps someday, Angel Pena’s musical arrangements and compositions will be performed again. Although the autobiography provides a view of his life and times, it is his music that defines the man, and the only way to appreciate that is to listen to his music.

ROSE CRUZ CHURMA established Kalamansi Books & Things three decades ago. It has evolved from a mail-order bookstore into an online advocacy with the intent of helping global Pinoys discover their heritage by promoting books of value from the Philippines and those written by Filipinos in the Diaspora. We can be reached at

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