Longtime Morro Bay music educator Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli, who founded the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony and served as a role model to thousands, died Monday of an apparent heart attack. He was 93.
Margaret Korisheli, his wife of 30 years, said the Georgian-born teacher, pianist, painter and sculptor had been in relatively good health. “It (his death) was a total shock,” she said.
No services are planned at this time.
San Luis Obispo filmmaker Tom Walters, who profiled Korisheli in the documentary “Botso: The Teacher from Tbilsi,” said the educator will be remembered for his boundless creativity, tireless work ethic and kind, gentle spirit.
“His legacy is extraordinary in this community,” said Walters, whose film received the Neil Travis Best in the Fest Award at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival in 2013.
Born in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Korisheli — whose nickname meant “young steer” in Georgian — survived personal loss, political strife and war to inspire multiple generations of students on the Central Coast.
Korisheli was just 14 when his father, a popular stage actor, was declared an enemy of the state and executed in 1936. Before his death, Platon Korisheli had a final jailhouse conversation with his son.
“He said to me, ‘When you go to bed each night, ask yourself: ‘Have I done enough?’ ” Botso Korisheli told the Los Angeles Times in 2000.
That philosophy guided Korisheli during World War II, when the aspiring concert pianist was forced to join the Soviet army. While digging ditches on the front lines, he crossed the Russian border in Nazi-controlled Poland, where he was captured, imprisoned and drafted as a translator.
Korisheli eventually immigrated to the United States, where he studied piano at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, now the California Institute of the Arts. After earning his teaching credentials at UC Santa Barbara, he moved to Morro Bay in 1957.
There, he became one of the region’s most influential educators, founding the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony in 1965. A former student, San Luis Obispo Symphony principal cellist Nancy Nagano, now leads the ensemble.
Other high-profile pupils of Korisheli’s include San Luis Obispo glass artist Larry Brebes, former San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges and Grammy Award-winning conductor Kent Nagano.
Korisheli was still teaching music privately at the time of his death, Walters said.
“When he died, he was literally doing what he loved to do,” the filmmaker said.
In addition to music, Korisheli also had an impact on the local arts scene as a sculptor whose public works included “Pelican Family” and “Giant Chessboard” in Morro Bay. He learned how to carve stone under the instruction of his friend and fellow Georgian, late Cambria sculptor George Papashvily.
“You don’t meet many people like that,” Walters said of Korisheli.
“Here’s someone who’s experienced unspeakable difficulty through war and imprisonment and tragedy,” he said. “To turn that around and … become this creative force that benefited so many people through his teaching is rather extraordinary.”
In addition to Margaret Korisheli, who chairs the fine arts division at Cuesta College, Botso Korisheli is survived by his children Temmo, 51; Tina, 49; Lia, 19, and Ellena, 14.