Where It All Began

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Sarasota Choral Society Van Wezel  2000
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Dr. Julia W. Rohr passed away in March, 2019, at the age of 101. Dr. Rohr directed the Sarasota Choral Society from 1954 to 1994.   She directed choirs and taught music for seven decades, six of those decades in Sarasota, Florida. Most women her age had long retired, but not this energetic, feisty lady! She worked full-time giving private piano, voice, and violin lessons five days a week at Julie Rohr Academy.

Her musical career began at age six when she started elementary school in Fall River, Massachusetts. She immediately set herself apart from her peers with her musical talent. That talent sent her to Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia where she graduated with a degree in vocal and instrumental music. She married her college sweetheart, Arthur Rohr, who was a band director and later would conduct the Sarasota Concert Band for many years. They moved to Kannapolis, North Carolina where she began teaching high school chorus and orchestra. They moved to Sarasota in 1953 with their daughter and Arthur’s parents. Dr. Rohr immediately began teaching in the Sarasota County public schools where she taught elementary through high school in chorus, orchestra, and general music for over 40 years. She has taught in every public school in Sarasota north of Nokomis; elementary, junior high, and high school, at one time or another. Prior to directing the choir at Bee Ridge Presbyterian (where she retired after more than 40 years), Dr. Rohr was the choir director for Sarasota’s First Presbyterian Church. She also played viola in the Florida West Coast Symphony, opened her own music school – Julie Rohr Music Studios, opened Julie Rohr Academy (a private school for students two years through eighth grade), directed The Sarasota Choral Society from 1956 to 1994 (where she was still the Director Emerita), and founded and directed the Sarasota Girl’s Choir for 6 years and the Sarasota Boy’s Choir for 22 years, which traveled extensively throughout the Continental U.S., Alaska and Canada.

Director Emerita

1918 - 2019

Dr. Rohr’s contributions to the community have been recognized through various honors. She won the Governor’s Award for the Arts in 1976, Woman of the Year Award from VFW Post 3233 Ladies Auxiliary, and Patriot of the Year for the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration. In the spring of 1991, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Liberal Arts degree from her Alma Mater, Shenandoah University. At the 60th Anniversary Gala Performance of the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah given by the Sarasota Choral Society on November 28, 2004, at the Church of the Palms Presbyterian Church, Dr. Rohr received proclamations from the City of Sarasota, Sarasota County, and the Sarasota County School Board honoring her for her years of dedication to the citizens of Sarasota. November 28, 2004, was declared “Dr. Julia W. Rohr Day”. She traveled internationally, met presidents and governors, was honored by the academic community and gave much of herself to the Sarasota community through her service work. There is hardly a person in Sarasota interested in music of any sort that hasn’t been touched by Dr. Rohr’s musical and philanthropic endeavours.


In the midst of all this, Dr. Rohr raised a successful family that is continuing in her tradition of music education and community service. Her daughter, Julie Rohr McHugh, is also an accomplished performer, director, and educator. Following a successful career in professional show business, daughter Julie is now owner and head of Julie Rohr Academy in Sarasota. The Academy specializes in early childhood, elementary, and middle school education with a strong emphasis on visual and performing arts.


Dr. Rohr was quick to point out that recognition was not her motivating factor. Music and helping children were her life, and her pride and joy was teaching music. A loving, caring individual who drew forth the musical potential in everyone, and transformed their abilities into song. That is the remarkable legacy of the inimitable Dr. Julia W. Rohr.


Sarasota in 1944 was a much different place. No high rises lined the bay-front and many still remembered a sleepy fishing village centered around Five Points. Yet Sarasota, even then, was a city of culture where the arts and music flourished. And Sarasota in 1944 was fortunate, as now, to have people with vision and a spirit of community. It was those individuals who staged the first production of Handel’s Messiah for Sarasotans in December 1944.

The Sarasota Choral Society was actually formed nine years previous to this by Mrs. Thomas Butler. Singers from local church choirs had weekly rehearsals and two concerts per year, one at Christmas and one in the spring. Membership was comprised of people from area churches, which continues today. Three of these members were instrumental in getting the Choral Society to put on the Messiah: Mrs. Walter Wooten, Mrs. Eleanor Bates Northern, and long time board member Mrs. Elizabeth (Lane) Whittington. Mrs. Northern conducted rehearsals and a director from Tampa was brought in for the actual performance. The practice of hiring local musicians for the Society’s performance also originated in 1945, and this loosely formed group became the nucleus for what is known today as the Sarasota Orchestra. In the 1940s and early 1950s, anywhere from 50-75 members sang in the group and performances were held in the Municipal Auditorium.

In 1956, Julia W. Rohr began a new chapter of the Choral Society’s history when she was hired as director. Membership increased to a peak of just over 300 voices; performances have been held at First Baptist, First Methodist, and Bahia Vista Mennonite Churches, the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art courtyard, and, after 1973, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.  Dr. Rohr retired at her zenith with The Choral Society, conducting her last production, celebrating the Society’s 50th Anniversary performance of Messiah, on December 4, 1994 at Van Wezel.

In 1995, Robert Romanski became the Artistic Director for The Sarasota Choral Society.  Mr. Romanski led the annual Messiahperformances through 2004 in such venues as Van Wezel, Samuel R. Neel Auditorium at SCF, the Epiphany Cathedral in Venice, and the Church of the Palms (Presbyterian).

On November 28, 2004, The Sarasota Choral Society presented its 60th Anniversary Gala Performance at the Church of the Palms Presbyterian Church in Sarasota.  The organization was honored with proclamations from the City of Sarasota and the Sarasota County Commission at this location for its long history of contributions to the arts and lifestyle in the Sarasota area. One of the main highlights of the evening occurred when Dr. Julia Rohr was honored for her almost half century of support and leadership of the arts and music in Sarasota by:  Sarasota Mayor Richard F. Martin, City Commissioner Lou Ann Palmer, County Commissioner David Mills, and Sarasota County School Board member Dr. Kathy Kleinlein.  The Choral Society presented her with a lifetime achievement award on behalf of the citizens of Sarasota and its members.  Dr. Rohr ended her retirement briefly to conduct the final movement of Messiah: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.

2005 brought The Sarasota Choral Society under the direction of dynamic Artistic Director, Deidre Reigel. Her experience in opera, dance, technical direction, staging and lighting, and orchestral leadership, along with seemingly limitless amounts of energy and a relentless drive for excellence made her the ideal person to lead this organization into a very exciting and promising future.

On May 31, 2008, The Sarasota Choral Society presented a very special performance honoring Dr. Julia W. Rohr in celebration of her 90th birthday in which she came out of retirement to conduct some of her favorite music. The featured soloists, soprano Kyoung Cho and tenor Bryce Westervelt, wowed the audience.
In 2008, The Sarasota Choral Society proudly introduced the Sarasota Young Voices (SYV) at the annual Christmas production of Messiah, a group of very talented young vocalists founded by Geneviève Beauchamp.

On December 5, 2009, The Sarasota Choral Society started a new chapter in its history as it celebrated its 65th consecutive annual performance of Messiah at Pine Shores Presbyterian with a new Artistic Director, Geneviève Beauchamp. With a strong background in choral singing and piano, Ms. Beauchamp will continue the organization’s long standing tradition of choral excellence as she builds on the work of previous Artistic Directors Deidre Reigel, Robert Romanski, and Dr. Julia W. Rohr.

February 9, 2013 saw Artistic Director Geneviève Beauchamp and Accompanist Dr. Jonathan Spivey present “Dueling Pianos; The Gloves Come Off” as a fundraiser for the Society. They featured dual pianos performing pieces from Mozart, Milhaud, Bizet, and Gershwin among others to a full house to great acclaim.

The Sarasota Choral Society was honored to perform “Messiah” Thanksgiving weekend 2015 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Joining choristers from around the nation, it sang Sir Thomas Beecham and Eugene Goosen’s 1959 inspiring re-orchestration of Handel’s ever popular oratorio, featuring a full symphony orchestra and more than 450 singers.

On December 7, 2019, the Sarasota Choral Society celebrated its Diamond Jubilee, presenting its 75th consecutive annual performance of the Christmas version of G. F. Handel's Messiah: A Sacred Oratorio to a sold out house at Church of the Palms in Sarasota, Florida.

As part of our Diamond Jubilee celebration, the Choral Society was invited to travel and perform with other choristers on an Italian tour with Perform International from June 28-July 6, 2020. This tour would have included performances in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and at Mass in St. Peters Basilica at the Vatican, as well as tours of Tuscany and the surrounding Italian countryside. Unfortunately, this trip did not come to fruition due to the pandemic.   But we shall not be defeated! In the future, we plan to make trips of this kind part of our annual calendar and available to our all our members.