Ad Astra Music Festival

Est. 2014 in Russell, Kansas

Artistic Staff


ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Alex Underwood is a choral conductor and music educator originally from Russell, Kansas. He is all-but-dissertation in his doctoral program in choral music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studies with Andrew Megill and served as the conductor of the University Women's Chorus. He earned an undergraduate degree from Sterling College (Kansas) in music education and voice performance before teaching vocal music at Ruppenthal Middle School and Russell High School from 2008 to 2012. He is the recipient of the 2011 Young Director Award from the Kansas Choral Directors Association and the 2010 Horizon Award for first year teachers from the Kansas Department of Education. Alex completed a Master of Music in choral conducting at Westminster Choir College in 2014 where he studied with Joe Miller and James Jordan. He founded the Ad Astra Music Festival in 2014.


ARTISTIC DIRECTOR John Irving is Director of Choral Studies at Christopher Newport University where he conducts the Chamber Choir and Women’s Chorus and teaches courses in choral conducting and literature. He has served as interim music director of the Denton Bach Society and men’s chorus director of Westminster Choir College Vocal Institute. Previously, John was director of choral music at Fordham High School for the Arts in New York City where he prepared his choirs for performances at Carnegie Hall and was founding choral workshop director to Weill Music Institute’s Count Me In program, an initiative that delivers musical instruction to middle school students whose schools are without a choral music program. The New York Times praised his choirs in performance as “not just exuberant but polished and precise.” John earned a doctorate in choral conducting from the University of North Texas. He holds a master’s degree in choral conducting from Westminster Choir College and a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Texas at Austin. His musical training began as a treble with the Texas Boys Choir.


EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Brittany Fritsch is a product manager and entrepreneur originally from Russell, Kansas. She received her MBA in international business from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies with an emphasis in social impact entrepreneurship. Her professional experience has focused on helping small businesses access technology once only available to the largest international companies. She is passionate about nontraditional leadership and transformational collaboration practices, and has brought her strengths in this area to bear on her professional projects, as well as her dedication to Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging programs within her companies. Her past positions have focused on enabling internal software and customer services teams to do their best work in uncertain and complex circumstances in order to serve customers, and she is excited to adapt those skills to enable this incredible festival to serve her hometown community and the cultural heart of Kansas. She is an avid volunteer and lifelong supporter of many arts, animal welfare, and local human rights organizations.


FESTIVAL DIRECTOR Austin McWilliams, conductor and countertenor, is an Adjunct Professor at Western Michigan University, where he conducts the university operas, teaches phonetics, and assists the choral ensembles. Austin strives to present compelling, intriguing music that is directly relevant to the communities in which it is performed. He is a faculty member at Missouri Scholars Academy, an annual, month-long governor’s school for gifted high school juniors. In 2019, Austin earned his Master of Music in choral conducting at WMU under Kimberly Dunn Adams. While at WMU, he designed a recital on HIV/AIDS awareness in collaboration with several community organizations, and he earned the School of Music Graduate Award for Excellence in Teaching. Austin graduated in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor of Science in computer engineering with highest honors. He hails from the illustrious micropolitan hub of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where he received his formative training from Rachael Bonk.

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DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR Katy Hertel is an accomplished fundraiser and Russell native. Katy earned a Bachelor of Science in Health and Human Performance from Fort Hays State University and currently works at Russell Regional Hospital. She previously led the Russell Regional Hospital Campaign for Continuing Excellence to expand the hospital campus and add healthcare services for patients. Katy lives in Russell with her husband and three children, and she is excited to oversee the continued growth of Ad Astra as the festival increases its presence both regionally and nationally.