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 (ABD) 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.


FESTIVAL DIRECTOR Austin McWilliams is a Michigan-based conductor and countertenor. In 2019 he completed his Master of Music in choral conducting at Western Michigan University, where he studied conducting with Kimberly Dunn Adams and voice with Ken Prewitt. At Western, Austin conducted the university operas and designed a recital on HIV/AIDS awareness in collaboration with several community organizations. He is a faculty member at Missouri Scholars Academy, an annual, month-long governor’s school for gifted high school juniors. Austin received his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering with highest honors in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This is Austin's third year on the artistic staff of Ad Astra. He hails from the illustrious micropolitan hub of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where he received his formative training from Rachael Bonk.

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FESTIVAL MANAGER Shelby Laird graduated from Northern Arizona University in December 2018 with a degree in choral music education. While at NAU, she performed with Shrine of the Ages Choir, High Altitude, Handbell Choir, Women’s Chorale, and the student-conducted University Singers. Shelby served as NAU’s Student Chapter President of ACDA and planned the Student Symposium for the state of Arizona. She received the Arizona Outstanding Future Choral Educator of the Year Award in 2018. Last semester, Shelby performed the role of Countess (The Marriage of Figaro) at Fort Hays State University. She and her husband Micah Laird currently live in Independence, Missouri. In the fall, Shelby will begin her first teaching job at William Chrisman High School teaching choir, theory, and music appreciation.


MEDIA DIRECTOR Jonathan Mills is from Flagstaff, Arizona, where he serves as the Director of Marketing for Prometheus Solar and the graduate assistant for the a cappella groups at Northern Arizona University. He graduated from NAU in 2017 with a degree in marketing and is now pursuing a Master of Education in educational leadership. While at NAU, Jonathan sang with the all-male a cappella group The Highlanders and served as the president his senior year while he the state president for Arizona Collegiate DECA. This fall he will enter his sixth year in the Shrine of the Ages Choir, under the direction of Dr. Edith Copley, with which he has toured Estonia, Latvia, and Sweden and will tour through South Korea and Hong Kong in the summer of 2020. Following graduation from NAU, Jonathan founded and managed a semi-professional a cappella group that has performed in Arizona, California, and Las Vegas, where they opened for DCappella. This year is Jonathan's first on the artistic staff of Ad Astra.


PUBLICITY DIRECTOR Leo Walker is a vocalist hailing from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He studies classical voice at Western Michigan University with Drs. David Little and Rhea Olivaccé and has been coached by Gerald White, Peter Eldridge, Johnaye Kendrick, and Gregory Jasperse. He is currently the president of WMU’s chapter of the American Choral Directors Association. He has served as the assistant tour manager of university choruses and producer for the vocal jazz ensemble Gold Company. Leo is also an active member in WMU’s Department of Dance, where he has been featured in pieces of various styles ranging from Graham technique to the Sub-Saharan African tradition. In June, Leo cofounded a nonprofit organization Open House Theatre Company that serves to provide an educational and accessible theatrical experience to all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or economic status. This year is Leo’s first on the artistic staff of Ad Astra.


PRODUCTION MANAGER Micah Laird is a recent graduate of Northern Arizona University where he obtained a degree in instrumental music education as the outstanding senior in the school of music. During his time at NAU, Micah was an active member of the school of music. He performed with the Shrines of Ages Choir, Northern Voices Jazz Choir, The Highlanders all-male a cappella group, Wind Symphony, Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Band, and the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra where he played trumpet. While in college, Micah also toured the country with the world-champion Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps. He recently moved to Independence, Missouri, where he will begin teaching in Blue Springs and freelancing in the Kansas City area.

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PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Courtney Evans is a mezzo-soprano originally from Arizona, where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s in music education from Northern Arizona University. During her time at NAU, she sang with the nationally-recognized Shrine of the Ages Choir and High Altitude vocal jazz ensemble. Additionally, she performed in NAU Opera and Lyric Theatre productions, including Trial by Jury, Le nozze di Figaro, and Kiss Me, Kate. Courtney has also appeared as a soloist with the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra and Alpine Early Music Ensemble. She currently performs with various professional ensembles, including Sedona Academy Chamber Singers, Canto Vivo Chorale, and Unaccompanied, an award-winning a cappella vocal jazz group. Courtney is a pianist, choreographer, and adjudicator for choir programs throughout the Phoenix area. She will begin teaching in August as the choir director at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe.