“Music saved me.”
Those are the words of Morro Bay music educator Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli, who founded the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony in 1965. A tireless teacher, pianist and sculptor, he endured personal loss, political strife and war before making his way to the Central Coast.
Korisheli, now 92, is the focus of the documentary “Botso: The Teacher from Tbilisi,” which received the Neil Travis Best in the Fest Award at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival in March. The film opens Friday at the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo – the same day it premieres in New York City.
Directed by Tom Walters and written by Hilary Grant, “Botso” delves into Korisheli’s fascinating past while highlighting his indomitable spirit, his passion for the arts and his deep bond with his students.
The film, which pairs contemporary interviews with historical photos, footage and recreations, starts by exploring Korisheli’s formative years in his native Georgia.
The son of stage performers, Korisheli grew up in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. But his childhood came to an abrupt end when the Soviet government imprisoned and executed his father, a critic of Joseph Stalin, in 1936.
In a final jailhouse meeting, “He squeezed (into) 20 minutes all he wanted to do for me, telling me the most important steps in (my life I) could take,” recalls Korisheli, who was 14 at the time. “I was grown up all of the sudden.”
His journey didn’t end there, of course.
Forced to dig ditches on the front lines during World War II, Korisheli crossed the Russian border into Nazi-controlled Poland, where he was captured, imprisoned, and drafted as a translator. After the war, he studied music in Germany and eventually immigrated to the United States.
“I like to teach my students that suffering is part of the life,” Korisheli, whose nickname means “young steer” in Georgian, says in “Botso.” “If I would run away from suffering, I would not be living up to who I am.”
“Botso” also celebrates the life Korisheli has created in Morro Bay, focusing on his legacy as a public educator and private tutor.
He shares his screen time in the documentary with family members – including wife Margaret Korisheli, chair of fine arts at Cuesta College –and current and former pupils including former county Sheriff Pat Hedges, San Luis Obispo glass sculptor Larry Brebes and six-time Grammy Award winner Kent Nagano, music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal in Quebec.
“How can someone come from Morro Bay, Calif., and now be a conductor in Berlin and Munich and Salzburg?” asks Nagano, who considers Korisheli “a musical father.” “The only explanation that I can come up with was simply being given the keys by Botso Korisheli.”