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Mr. Korisheli's Opus

After the execution of his actor father, he fled the Soviet Union and settled in Morro Bay where, as a teacher, he created a world of musical magic.


MORRO BAY, Calif. — On the day of his father's execution in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, 14-year-old Botso Korisheli was granted 20 minutes to say goodbye.

"I was able to see Dad in prison; he was in a small cell, and he was holding my mom's hand," recalls Korisheli, 78, of that day in 1936 when his outspoken father, celebrated Georgian actor Platon Korisheli, was put to death as an enemy of the people.

"That's where he told me everything he wanted to tell me for the rest of my life," continues Korisheli. "He said to me, 'When you go to bed each night, ask yourself: 'Have I done enough?' "

Has Botso Korisheli done enough? To find the answer to that question, all you have to do is ask the musicians of Morro Bay.

They are now middle-aged, or rapidly approaching that distinction. They were members of Korisheli's orchestra at Morro Elementary school. Ask Kent Nagano, 48, who will take charge of Berlin's Deutsche Symphonie in September, and who takes on the role of first principal conductor of Los Angeles Opera in July 2001. Or ask Gerald Folsom, 49, principal French horn player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Ask trumpeter Bob Bennett, 37, veteran of the Woody Herman Orchestra, the Brian Setzer Orchestra and the Disneyland Band. Ask Northridge-based composer Michael Brebes, 47, or his brother, San Luis Obispo glass sculptor Larry Brebes, 51, a French horn player for Korisheli and now a guitarist in a small blues band.

Or ask Rodger Anderson, 50, mayor of Morro Bay, who also played the French horn. Anderson credits Korisheli for instilling a work ethic that has remained with him.

Let Nagano--who played clarinet at age 7 in Korisheli's grade-school orchestra--speak for them all:

"That's why I think I was lucky enough to become a musician; if I hadn't had [Korisheli's influence] at a very young age, I'm not really sure if it would have been possible, growing up in such a rural area," Nagano said. "He established an intensive music school within the California public school system. It's extraordinary that so many professionals have come from that little orchestra."

Morro Bay has a population of just under 10,000. In Korisheli's early teaching days, the population was less than 4,000. That fact makes the long list of distinguished Korisheli alumni even more exceptional. Carol Rice, principal cellist with the Berkeley Symphony (founded by Nagano) started here. So did Nagano's sister Joan, a pianist in San Francisco.

His cousin Nancy Nagano, 44, a cellist, did too. She recently moved back to live on the still-operating Nagano farm (formerly artichokes, now avocados). She has opened a travel agency and is bringing the musicians of Morro Bay full circle: She will now lead the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony, founded by Korisheli in 1965.

"There was some magic in him. . . ," she said. "He had something perfect to inspire kids to want to play music."

Nickname Began in Childhood

In the Georgian language, "Botso" (pronounced BOAT-zo) means "little steer." Young Wachtang Korisheli acquired the nickname just outside his Tblisi, Georgia, schoolyard, where the boys did their fighting. "Most Georgians are tall, but I was stocky and a little chubby, so I used to attack them with my head first," Korisheli said. "The name stuck to me.

"Of course, I don't fight anymore," he added with a wide grin during a recent conversation at the home he built on Morro Bay's Piney Way some 45 years ago.

Students have been making Korisheli's house a second classroom ever since he began teaching in Morro Bay in 1957. Now retired from the public schools, he still coaches music students privately and chairs the art department at Mission College Preparatory in nearby San Luis Obispo (he's a sculptor as well as a musician).

These days, Korisheli shares his "all-organic" home, from its irregular driftwood doorknobs to its handcrafted furniture, with wife Margaret, 41, and their daughter, Lia, 4, adopted from China (Korisheli's two adult children, Temmo and Tina, adopted during his first marriage, also grew up in this house). But it was clearly designed as much to extend his reach as a teacher as to shelter his family.

A center courtyard can accommodate chairs for up to 200 people. The windows of the studio, where sculptor Margaret does her work and Korisheli teaches music, open wide to the courtyard, making a stage for occasional informal concerts there. Inside, a staircase with 12 steps leads to a balcony, so music students can literally walk up and down the 12-tone scale. (Both Nagano and Folsom once performed the drill.)

On one wall of the main house are two large portraits of his parents. Korisheli commissioned the paintings, basing his mother's on a photograph and his father's on a postage stamp featuring the actor in his most famous role as poet Vazja Pschavela, a hero in his native Georgia.

While the last words of his father shaped his life after he escaped the Soviet Union, it was his mother's cunning that helped him get out in the first place.

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