Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli has been an artist regularly featured on the pages of the Tribune. Sculptor, musician, teacher the clippings in our file range from the 1960s to the present. His rock sculpture graces the entry to the city of Morro Bay. Korisheli is the featured guest and speaker at the quarterly meeting of the Historical Society of Morro Bay. The potluck dinner will be held 5 p.m. at the Morro Bay Veteran’s Hall November 7, 2010.
Here is one story from the Tribune’s archives:
A life set to music
July 9, 2007
By Anna Tong
Morro Bay was a small, hardscrabble fishing town when Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli arrived in 1957 to teach music, and the community had never experienced anything like him.
Korisheli hailed from an exotic place many in Morro Bay had never heard of: the Republic of Georgia, then a part of the Soviet Union.
“During my first lesson I had with him … as a 7-year-old, I became very aware of the fact that he talked funny, ” recalled AnnaLynn Zinn Dunlap, 57, one of his first students and now a hypnotherapist in Rancho Cucamonga.
“He was telling me about hand placement, and I remember he kept on saying, ‘You place your “tum” right there,’ and that was his way of saying ‘thumb.’ I was so confused.”
The European with the funny accent would go on to foster musical talent in hundreds of children over the next few decades, founding the San Luis Obispo County Youth Symphony along the way.
Now, the 85-year-old’s life and works are the subjects of a documentary called “Botso: The Passion of Music, The Power of Art.” The movie is being filmed now to mark the youth symphony’s 40th anniversary.
‘Have I done enough?’
Korisheli was born in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. His father, Platon, was a famous stage actor in the country, and his mother, Suzanna, was an actress and a concert pianist.
He picked up the nickname “Botso” because of the approach he took to schoolyard fighting–charging headfirst at his opponent. “Most Georgians are taller, but I’m kind of stocky, ” Korisheli said in his deep, calming voice. ” ‘Botso’ means ‘young bull’ in Georgian, and I used to start fights like a young bull.”
Korisheli showed promise as a young pianist, and he planned to try out for a conservatory.
His childhood ended abruptly at age 14, when the KGB executed his father, who had been using his celebrity status to speak out against Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. In their goodbye, his father was granted 20 minutes to speak to his son.
“He said to me, ‘When you go to bed each night, ask yourself, “Have I done enough today?” ‘ Those are words I still live by, ” Korisheli said.
During World War II, Korisheli lived as a fugitive, enduring a six-month winter march through Poland after being captured by the Nazis and working as a translator in his prison camp.
At the war’s end, Korisheli landed a scholarship at the Han-del Conservatory in Munich, Germany, despite not having practiced for several years.
Music led him to the United States, where he studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and found an unusual patron, movie star Janet Gaynor, who allowed him to live and practice the piano in her beach house for free.
The long hours of practice made him decide a concert pianist’s life wasn’t for him.
Korisheli began teaching music to make money. Soon, he discovered he had a knack for inventing fun techniques to teach, such as having students run up a flight of stairs while he played a scale, each step symbolizing a note.
“I got infected by this desire to teach young people, ” he said. “I was obsessed with it.”
He received a music degree from UCSB and, in 1957, he moved to Morro Bay for a job teaching music at the now-closed Morro Elementary School.
Korisheli liked Morro Bay, he said, because it reminded him of his grandmother’s village in Georgia.
An artistic lifestyle
Korisheli went to great lengths to infuse his students with music.
When he couldn’t find violins for his students, he made some himself from wooden planks and strings.
Before long, he had a group of students who would rehearse with him before school.
“The fishermen’s and farmers’ children were the best students, ” he said. “They would line up in front of my little room every morning at 7.”
The early morning lessons were the beginnings of the county youth symphony, which now has 150 members and is the only such youth music group between Santa Barbara and Monterey.
Korisheli believes it is imperative for children to receive a musical education.
“We have expressive elements in our system, ” he said. “Music focuses everything inwardly and forces you to connect your intelligence, too.Music is essential.”
His students agree that Korisheli taught them much more than notes; he taught them to live an artistic lifestyle.
“An effort was made by a couple of people to contact everyone who had played in his orchestras, and within that group were so many high-profile professionals, ” said four-time Grammy-award winner Kent Nagano, music director of the Munich Opera and one of Korisheli’s first pupils.
“No matter what walk of life they chose as a profession, (there was) that opening up of a personal perspective of how to see the world.”
Like his former students, Korisheli uses his creativity beyond music. Forty years ago, the late Georgian sculptor George Papashvily, who had a studio in Cambria, took Korisheli under his wing.
In the Georgian tradition, Papashvily wouldn’t let Korisheli do any sculpting during his first year as a student; instead, he had him hold different rocks and feel their “spirits.”
Several of Korisheli’s sculptures are on public display in Morro Bay. One is the giant outdoor chessboard on the city’s Embarcadero.
The San Luis Obispo County Youth Symphony that Korisheli created is celebrating its 40th year.
Two years ago, the symphony commissioned freelance writer and Cambria resident Hilary Grant to write a historical piece for the anniversary. Minke WinklerPrins, then-president of the symphony, suggested Grant collaborate with Morro Bay filmmaker Tom Walters to make a documentary.
“When we looked into it, ” Grant said, “we thought a documentary on Botso would be more interesting.”
The symphony agreed to sponsor the project, under the stipulation the film would do its own fundraising and that all the proceeds would go to the symphony’s endowment fund.
With that, “Botso: The Passion of Music, the Power of Art” was conceived.
The film is being made in collaboration with Aspect Studios, a San Luis Obispo-based production company, and has a $140,000 budget — of which $50,000 has been raised. Production should wrap up by the end of this next year.
Visiting his homeland
Korisheli is preparing for a trip to Georgia this month that will be filmed for the movie.
The filmmakers and Korisheli’s family — including his wife, Margaret, and young daughters Lia and Ellena, adopted from China–are going. While there, they will work with a film crew from Georgia and will stay in Tbilisi as well as the village where Korisheli’s father grew up.
Georgia, a small country tucked between Turkey and Russia on the Black Sea, has a rich artistic culture and unique folklore. The country has produced many famous artists, including composer Meliton Balanchivadze and painter Niko Pirosmani.
Korisheli hopes showing the filmmakers his roots will shed light on himself and why he places such value on the arts.
“Dance and music is everything in Georgia, ” he said. “When our family eats dinner, we always sing before, and when one Georgian calls another Georgian on the telephone, you always sing to each other.
“I want to show the world what Georgia is.”