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Being Botso: Meet the Man Who Brought Music to Morro Bay

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Three familiar faces decorate the wall of Wachtang "Botso" Korisheli's Morro Bay music studio. "The three B's: Beethoven, Bach and Brahms," the Georgian-born educator explained, pointing out each composer in turn. "One of my students said there should be a fourth B: Botso."

It's safe to say that Korisheli, a classically trained pianist, painter, sculptor and teacher who has lived on California's Central Coast for 55 years, has just as profound an impact on his students' lives as those long-dead musical maestros.

Forced to leave his homeland as a teenager, the 90-year-old survived political strife, war and other hardships to become a guiding light to multiple generations of art lovers, including Jerry Folsom, former principal French horn player for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Kent Nagano, music director of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal in Quebec.

Now Korisheli's life is the subject of a new documentary, "Botso: The Passion of Music, the Power of Art," directed by Tom Walters and written by Hilary Roberts Grant. (The title stems from Korisheli's childhood nickname, which means "young steer" in Georgian.) "This is a story that people have to see to believe. It's just that inspiring," Walters said.

The son of stage actor Platon Korisheli and actress and concert pianist Susanna Beganischvili, Botso Korisheli expressed an interest in music at an early age. "When I was 9 years old, I told (my parents) that the orchestra had always fascinated me," he recalled. "A week later, (my father) took me to an orchestra rehearsal ..."

Korisheli next became enamored of the woodwind section, declaring that he wanted to play the oboe. Then he accompanied his mother to a piano recital. "I was just taken away. I went home and started practicing," recalled Korisheli, who later learned that had been his parents' plan all along.

The young pianist's promising career ended abruptly at age 14 when his father, who used his celebrity status to speak out against Josef Stalin, was declared an enemy of the state and slated for execution in 1936. Platon Korisheli had just 20 minutes to say goodbye to his son.

"He told me, 'Every night before you go to bed, be sure you ask yourself, 'Did I do enough today?'" Botso Korisheli recalled, adding that the philosophy still guides him today. "I teach my students that."

Forced to dig ditches on the front lines during World War II, Korisheli crossed the Russian border into Nazi-controlled Poland, where he was captured, imprisoned, and drafted as a translator. After the war, following a brief period spent evading Soviet troops in the hills of Germany, Korisheli won a scholarship to the Handel Conservatory of Music in Munich.

Korisheli eventually immigrated to the United States, where he studied piano at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music -- now the California Institute of the Arts -- and attended night classes at Hollywood High School. There, an acquaintance introduced him to actress Janet Gaynor, who invited the pianist to live and practice at her Playa del Rey beach house.

Korisheli went on to earn his teaching credentials at UC Santa Barbara. Then, in the summer of 1957, he set off in search of a public school post in San Luis Obispo County.

After rejecting Atascadero and San Luis Obispo as "too hot," Korisheli drove to Cambria, where he was delighted to discover cows grazing on a football field. But the educator had one more stop to make: the now-closed Morro Elementary School.

"When I got to Morro Bay, there was no one there (on campus)," Korisheli recalled, except for a man perched on a ladder painting the nurse's office. "I asked him, 'Where is the principal?' 'I am the principal.' I said, 'That's the place for me.'"

Nagano, a six-time Grammy Award winner, was a third grader when he first encountered Korisheli. He remembers an imaginative instructor able to coax inspiring performances from even the most inexperienced students - once asking a young percussionist struggling with the concept of "crescendo" to imagine crashing ocean waves.

"He treated us ... as if we were grown up, as if we were professionals instead of young elementary school students," said Nagano, whose sister, Bay Area pianist Joan Nagano, and cousin, San Luis Obispo Symphony principal cellist Nancy Nagano, also studied with Korisheli. "He was inspiring us in such a way that we felt music was an integral, organic and relevant part of our lives."

That's a sentiment echoed by several past students in "Botso," including San Luis Obispo glass artist Larry Brebes, Las Vegas accountant Heidi Sealy, overseas educator David Glenn and former San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges. "Teaching is my life," explained Korisheli, who founded the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony -- now headed by Nancy Nagano -- in 1965.

Although Korisheli has since retired from the public school system, he still teaches a handful of private students ages 8 to 50 in his mostly self-constructed home, a rambling warren of warm, unpainted wood, rough-faced stone and colorful stained glass. His music studio, which houses two baby grand pianos and a harpsichord, faces a large, sundrenched patio used for house concerts.

Sometimes, Korisheli said, he has students walk up the staircase leading to his second-story study while he plays scales on the piano. Each step corresponds to a different musical note.

Of course, music isn't Korisheli's only creative outlet. He began carving stone a few years after moving to Morro Bay under the tutelage of his friend and fellow Georgian, late Cambria sculptor George Papashvily.

Korisheli's blue granite sculpture, "Pelican Family," guards the entrance to Morro Bay, while his "Giant Chessboard" is popular with downtown visitors. (A smaller version of the chessboard stands outside his home.) In Korisheli's private gallery are sculptures inspired by ancient Greek mythology, including "Zeus & Io" and "Prometheus," as well as "Diversity," a trio of figures carved from black, brown and white stone representing racial harmony.

"Mr. Korisheli introduced us to the idea that our five senses are never divided," Nagano said. "If we experience the world, we never simply experience (it) through our ears, our eyes, our sense of touch or taste. For an artist, that's an essential lesson to learn."

According to Grant and Walters, Korisheli's passion for the arts can be traced back to his Georgian heritage. While filming "Botso," they spent about two weeks with Korisheli and his family in the Republic of Georgia, exploring the capitol city of Tbilisi and the surrounding countryside.

"It's a really magical place," Grant said of Georgia, noting the great esteem in which artists and musicians are held there. "In public places, instead of a monument of a soldier on a horse, there's a statue of a poet."

The film also features footage of 2008's BotsoFest, a three-day music festival honoring the educator, as well as archival photographs, vintage film clips and staged recreations of pivotal points in his life.

Korisheli's story is "an amazing example of human resilience, how someone can turn something horrific into something positive," Walters said. "It makes you appreciate life on a whole other level."

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