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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.

August 14, 2000|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the end of that school year, all Korisheli had available to give Folsom was the instrument's detachable mouthpiece. But after summer vacation, the young student returned to find that Korisheli had acquired a French horn for Folsom to play.

Larry Brebes, who now creates crystal sculptures for Fortune 500 companies, started out on the trumpet, but later became Folsom's rival on the French horn.

"And Botso promoted that to the hilt," Brebes said, laughing. He credits his studies with Korisheli for perhaps saving his life: When he got drafted, he was assigned to the Army band instead of being sent to Vietnam.

Larry and his brother, Michael, grew up in a fishing family; his dad was an abalone diver. "My parents were dirt poor, but they scraped together enough money for a trumpet, and got me started with Botso," he said. "I've kept music as a big part of my life."

Observed composer Michael Brebes: "When I left elementary school, I was playing higher level music than I [would play] through high school."

Trumpeter Bennett recently quit the music business to return his family to San Luis Obispo to open a cafe, called the Bean Counter.

"It wasn't just a job to him, it was his life," Bennett said of his years with Korisheli. "When I got to college, it struck me that the professors have so much ego involved in their teaching, and he has so little. People know him through his deeds, not through his words, that's for sure."

During his public school years, Korisheli took a sabbatical to complete his doctorate at the University of Freiburg, where he still returns every fourth year to teach. He also watched as 1978's Prop. 13 property-tax cut slowly eroded funding for the arts in the public schools. Finally, in the mid-1980s, he walked out of the system for good.

But hardly into retirement. "He says he's too busy to get old," observed city mayor Anderson. "And it's true--when [he and Margaret] adopted their baby, a lot of us were going, 'Oh my gosh!'--but he just handles everything in stride."

Several Sculptures Dot the Community

Huge chunks of Italian marble stand on the ground and on trestles in Korisheli's sculpting garden, waiting for his chisel. Several of his artworks grace the town--including an outdoor chessboard with wood chessmen ranging from 22- to 33-inches tall, and a stone piece in front of the library called "Carpe Diem"--seize the day--inspired by his father's last words.

Korisheli loves stone. "When I take the rock, the feeling I develop is this: I lost my country, I lost my family . . . we die, we go back to earth, and whether its ashes or bones or whatever, the minerals merge. How do I know, when I sculpt a rock, that there isn't somebody's spirit in there?"

In their coop nearby are two pet chickens. In keeping with the house, these are no regular hens, with their startled eyes and splendid spray of gold and amber feathers. Eventually, Korisheli said, they will lay greenish eggs. In this place, they seem to embody what ordinary chickens might become if they practice hard enough.

Twice in the last decade, his former students have paid special tribute to Korisheli. In the early '90s, Nagano tapped a group representing five years of Morro Elementary orchestra members for a reunion on the school stage--including Folsom, Joan and Nancy Nagano, Larry Brebes and many others. "It was something else--some of the guys hadn't touched their instruments since the left grade school, but they came back, and they could still play," marveled Nancy.

Several years later, Kent Nagano came back again--this time to conduct the San Luis Obispo County Youth Symphony in a benefit concert dedicated to Korisheli.

Said Morro Bay Mayor Anderson, "Botso was brought to tears."

The staying power of Korisheli's lessons doesn't surprise Folsom. "Because of the money crunch, [schools] want to keep it down to the basics, but they don't realize that art is something that human beings need, our souls need music and art," he said.

"Sitting in the orchestra at the end of Mahler's Second Symphony, or Bruckner's Fourth Symphony--something like that . . . it feels like you are ascending into heaven," Folsom added, groping for the right words. "How many people go through their whole lives without ever experiencing something that feels that way?"

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