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A Valentine to Botso

BotsoFest celebrates several generations of artists



Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli is rather unlike your average 87-year-old. For one thing, Korisheli hails from Georgia, a small Eastern European country, from which he was forced to flee after his father’s execution at the hands of Josef Stalin’s regime; his father had been a prominent actor who believed that an artist’s purpose was to serve society rather than a party’s political agenda. For another, the octogenarian has since managed to impress his adopted community of Morro Bay to such a degree that a musical celebration, titled BotsoFest, will be held in his honor Aug. 24 to 26. And, if a festival in his name isn’t distinction enough for the teacher and artist, Korisheli is the subject of a feature-length documentary slated for completion next spring.

HOMECOMING :  The film crew documents “Botso” Korisheli’s visit to a theater in his native country, Georgia. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CINEMA HOUSE FILMS
  • HOMECOMING : The film crew documents “Botso” Korisheli’s visit to a theater in his native country, Georgia.

Korisheli moved from Germany to Los Angeles in 1950, lured by a music scholarship. He began teaching in order to support himself while he proceeded with his education and found that his passion had re-focused; his drive to become a concert musician had been replaced with a desire to teach music. At U.C. Santa Barbara, he received notice of several teaching opportunities in SLO County.

“I almost signed to Cambria because it was so beautifully located and when I got there cows were grazing on the football field and I liked that,” said Korisheli. But Morro Bay managed to out-rustic Cambria when Korisheli arrived to find the school’s principal standing on a stepladder, painting.

From 1957 through the mid-’80s, Korisheli brought music into the lives of the county’s youth with an unparalleled sphere of influence, teaching at Morro Elementary School, Cuesta College, Sunnyside Elementary, Del Mar Elementary, Morro Bay High School, Los Osos Middle School, Mission Prep High School, and Mission Grammar School. In 1965 Korisheli founded the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony. The group survives today, one of the few opportunities for the county’s youth to perform music; only now the concert orchestra is conducted by Nancy Nagano, a former Morro Elementary School student of Korisheli’s. According to Nagano, under Korisheli’s encouraging influence, students who participated in the band became the norm rather than the exception. It wasn’t uncommon to see Korisheli driving a Volkswagen bus laden with both students and instruments.

“He brought a level of commitment to us as children,” said Deb Leage Beatty, another former student. “He was at my house before practice started every morning to pick me up. He would give me a ride to school with my French horn.”

Despite retiring from the public school system more than 20 years ago, the Georgian-American continues to teach, offering piano, violin, and sculpting classes from his studio. His passion for carving life into wood and stone is in no way diminished by his musical career; he is responsible for the large-scale chessboard on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero, a work made from stone in front of Morro Bay’s Library, and the blue granite pelicans near the entrance to Bayside Park. Even his house is proof of Korisheli’s lifelong commitment to art, from the music studio and courtyard expansive enough to seat 200 to the sculpting studio and tree house outside. The door handles, constructed of bits and pieces of driftwood, are distinct pieces of art in and of themselves.

Director Thomas Walters and writer Hilary Grant knew that Korisheli’s life made for a fascinating story; Grant had been hired to write an article to commemorate the Youth Symphony’s 40th anniversary and within 10 minutes of their first meeting Walters suggested that the Renaissance man would make a good subject for a documentary.

At the beginning of 2006 the pair commenced work on the film, documenting Korisheli’s history and interviewing his students—including Kent Nagano, former music director of the Los Angeles Opera and music director of Orchestre Symphonique de Montr»al and the Bavarian State Opera. It was Nagano who offered to direct a concert in order to raise money for the film project. His schedule, however, was so hectic that when he met with Grant and Walters—in April of 2007—he suggested that they schedule the event for August of 2008. Somehow that single concert morphed into the four-day event now known at BotsoFest.

“A person like Botso had never come to this town before. He brought a European sensibility to this little fishermen town. BotsoFest is a tribute and Valentine to Botso,” explained Grant. “But it’s also a fundraiser to help finish the movie.”

The stated budget for the film is $140,000, $60,000 of which has already been raised. Filming ebbs and flows as funding becomes available or doesn’t. All proceeds generated from BotsoFest ticket sales will be used to finish the film, which is about 80 percent complete in terms of filming and is nearing the costliest phase: post-production. In addition to meeting with several of Korisheli’s past students, the production crew traveled to their subject’s native country and filmed as he visited his mother’s grave and attempted to visit the site of his father’s execution. Though Korisheli’s homecoming reinforced the hardships he had endured prior to his move to the United States—being pressed into labor under Stalin’s tyranny and, later, taken prisoner by the Nazis in Poland—he proves himself capable of celebrating his homeland’s beauty.

“You should not escape suffering,” Korisheli says gravely in the film’s trailer, arguing that life’s hardships make its happy moments all the sweeter.

In addition to serving as a source of inspiration, BOTSO: The Passion of Music, The Power of Art boldly challenges the notion that art is not essential to a child’s education. Through the testimony of the adults whose lives were profoundly changed by the music instruction they received when they were young, the film outright rejects the politicians whose first impulse is to starve the arts when educational funding is scarce.

Already, Grant and Walters are preparing the marketing strategy that will launch their brave young film into an increasingly saturated independent film market. They plan to submit the film to both local and international film festivals, as well as independent theaters.

The merriment—and music—will commence Aug. 24 with a chamber music banquet at the Madonna Inn. The following day, Nagano will host a Botso Alumni Reunion Concert at the PAC; already former students from far-flung countries such as New Zealand and Germany have committed to participating. And Aug. 26 Korisheli will host a house concert following a gala dinner at Windows on the Water.

And while Korisheli’s commitment to his community, and its youth, is a subject of celebration, give a sigh of thanks for the principal who had the good sense to greet the Georgian from the lofty perspective of a stepladder.


INFOBOX: Party with Botso!

BotsoFest kicks off on Aug. 24 with a chamber music banquet at the Madonna Inn featuring pianist Mari Kodama and movie footage from the documentary project. $125. On Aug. 25, a Botso Alumni Reunion Concert hosted by Kent Nagano will take place at the PAC. $30 alumni registration, $10 for just the BBQ. Concert tickets cost $10-25. And Aug. 26, following a gala dinner at Windows on the Water, Botso Korisheli will host a house concert conducted by Kent Nagano. $250. All proceeds will be used to complete the documentary BOTSO: The Passion of Music, The Power of Art. For more information or to purchase tickets for the Alumni Reunion Concert call 756-2787. For other events call 541-7623. For more information about the film visit

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach hosts AshFest at least once a week. Send graven images in her honor to [email protected].


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