Sarasota in 1944 was a much different place. No high rises lined the bayfront 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, just as many of the members 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 Elizabeth (Lane) Whittington. Mrs. Northern would conduct 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 (formerly known as the Florida West Coast Symphony). In the 1940s and early 1950s, anywhere from 50-75 members sang in the group and performances were held in the Municipal Auditorium.
Julia W. Rohr began a new chapter of the Choral Society’s history when she was hired as director in 1956. Membership throughout her years increased to as many as 300 and performances have been held at First Baptist, First Methodist, and Bahia Vista Mennonite Churches, the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art courtyard, and, since 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, the director’s baton was most ably picked up by a native Sarasotan (born at Sarasota Memorial Hospital), Robert Romanski. Mr. Romanski led the Choral Society’s annual Messiah performances through 2004 in such venues as Van Wezel, Samuel R. Neel Auditorium at MCC, 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 where the organization was honored with proclamations from the City of Sarasota and the Sarasota County Commission 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 Sarasota Mayor Richard F. Martin, City Commissioner Lou Ann Palmer, County Commissioner David Mills, and Sarasota County School Board member Dr. Kathy Kleinlein honored Dr. Rohr with her own proclamations for her almost half century of support and leadership of the arts and music in Sarasota. The Choral Society presented her with a lifetime achievement award on behalf of the citizens of Sarasota and its members. Dr. Rohr came out of retirement at the end of the evening by conducting the final movement of Messiah: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain following Mr. Romanski’s leadership of the Christmas portion of Messiah which included the Hallelujah Chorus. Mr. Romanski, Fonda Davies, and Concertmaster Harmann Haakman were awarded plaques by the Choral Society for their dedicated service over the years. This performance was videotaped and a DVD produced which is available at performances and through the “Fund Raising” page of this website.
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.
2006 saw a new cooperative arrangement between The Sarasota Choral Society and the Sarasota Pops Orchestra as both organizations explored new and exciting possibilities in the performing arts.
The Sarasota Choral Society started a new chapter in its longevity as it celebrated its 65th consecutive annual performance of Messiah on December 5, 2009 with a new Artistic Director; Genevieve Beauchamp. With a strong background in choral singing and piano, Ms. Beauchamp will continue the organizations 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.
To inaugurate the beginning of celebrations and special events for our 70th anniversary production of Messiah in 2014, on February 9, 2013, The Sarasota Choral Society sponsored a very special performance: “Dueling Pianos: The Gloves Come Off!” featuring our very own Artistic Director Geneviève Beauchamp and Accompanist Dr. Jonathan Spivey playing “interlocked” grand pianos at Church of the Palms to a packed house.
We sincerely hope you will join us, either in the audience or on stage, as we continue our journey of choral excellence in the Sarasota area and beyond.