Mr. Korisheli's Opus

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Susanna Beganischvili pulled strings to see that her pianist son, forced into menial labor after his father's execution, was sent to work near Russia's western border. He fled across the border into Nazi-occupied Poland, but was soon captured as an enemy national and sent to a prison camp. He survived because he could speak both Russian and German, and his captors put him to work as a translator.

After the war, Korisheli managed to get an audition--and a scholarship--to the Munich Conservatory. He also wangled papers to come to America, where his Munich connections paved the way for a spot at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music (which in 1961 merged with Chouinard Art Institute to become California Institute of the Arts), where he began studying in 1950. He wouldn't return to Tblisi until the early 1990s, and never again saw his mother, who died in 1962.

In L.A., Korisheli moved in with an aunt, but didn't stay long; she couldn't bear his four to five hours of daily piano practice. Then, Hollywood beckoned--sort of. Korisheli became acquainted with a local chauffeur, and told the man he was looking for a place to live and practice. The chauffeur promised to talk to his rich employer--Janet Gaynor.

"And Janet said, 'Bring him over,' " Korisheli reminisces. "I got my white shirt and my flowers, and [the chauffeur] drove me over to this beautiful mansion in Bel-Air. And when she opened the door, she was beautiful and warm. I fell in love with her.

"I kissed her hand, and I said: 'Where is your piano, ma'am? I came to play.' She said: 'Well, I don't have a piano.' And I screamed at her: 'You don't have a piano, in this mansion?' "

Amused, Gaynor told Korisheli she kept a piano at her Playa del Rey beach house--and invited him to live there while he finished his conservatory studies.

Then, though trained for a performing career, Korisheli changed his course. "It is a difficult kind of life; you are on the road all the time," he explained, "and it requires six or seven hours of practice a day." He headed for UC Santa Barbara to get a bachelor's degree with plans to teach.

The same yearning for roots that would lead Korisheli to have his parents' portraits painted from old photos and postage stamps attracted him to Morro Bay. When USCB gave him three leads on teaching jobs in the California public school system, Korisheli picked the community that reminded him of home. "My grandfather was a great Greek Orthodox priest in a village in West Georgia, so small places attracted me," he said.

Play and Seek With Musical Notes

Korisheli also has an affinity for young students. On a recent afternoon in Korisheli's studio, two boys, ages 8 and 11, struggled to get their fingers at the right spot on their violins' strings. Whatever instrument his pupils eventually choose, Korisheli insists they start with the violin, because the only way to find the notes is by ear.

"I play a note; they have to find it by a count of 10," said Korisheli, as he tapped out sounds on the piano that the boys tried to match. "When they can do it on the count of one, they are violinists."

With the same exacting standards, Korisheli carved out what he proudly calls his "music conservatory" at Morro Elementary.

First, he coaxed students from the required general music class to join his Morro Elementary orchestra. Korisheli's rigorous standards for practice and performance were far above the norm for the average American schoolkid.

"I demand complete concentration and dedication to music," Korisheli said. "I was nicknamed 'Mr. No Shortcuts.' That was something new to them."

The school allowed him to take over one of its buildings, just for orchestra practice. Parents began bringing eager students to school at 7 a.m., an hour before classes--and they often lingered for another hour after the last bell of the day to practice together.

"It was a beautiful building. Nobody could hear us play; we were not disturbing the classes," Korisheli said. "Plus, they let me go into the [general music] classroom and teach what we were doing here, reading music, and ear training--that really augmented the whole thing."

Don Doyle, director of Visual and Performing Arts for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that opportunities are rare for today's teachers to take such an initiative. "I think our schools were better funded back in the 1950s and 1960s," he said. "[And] in . . . the school system, sometimes priorities clash, and arts get in the way."

The L.A. Philharmonic's Folsom was one of the general music students Korisheli lured into a bigger commitment. Folsom's family had moved to Morro Bay from Oklahoma City in 1962, when he was 12. "That's when I met Botso," he recalled.

"He said: 'I need a French horn player, would you like to play the French horn?'

"I said: 'What's a French horn?' "

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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