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, KS. He is all-but-dissertation (ABD) in his doctoral program in Choral Music at the University of Illinois (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 (KS) in music education and voice performance before teaching vocal music at Ruppenthal Middle School and Russell High School from 2008-2012. 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 Masters of Music in Choral Conducting degree 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.


MEDIA DIRECTOR Austin McWilliams is pursuing a Master of Music in choral conducting at Western Michigan University, where he studies with Kimberly Dunn Adams. As the graduate assistant of choirs at Western, Austin conducts Campus Choir, assistant-conducts the WMU Chorale and Collegiate Singers, and teaches conducting and other courses each semester.  He also studies voice (countertenor) with Ken Prewitt and keyboard with Karl Schrock. 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. There he studied voice with Dawn Harris, studied electronic music synthesis with Lippold Haken, and sang in the University of Illinois Chamber Singers under the direction of Andrew Megill and Kristina Boerger. At Illinois, he was the teaching assistant for the Varsity Men’s Glee Club and several engineering courses. This is Austin’s second year serving as the Media Director at Ad Astra, and this year he has designed and will conduct the Sunday Evening Series.  Austin hails from the illustrious micropolitan hub of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where he received his formative training from Rachael Bonk.


PUBLICITY DIRECTOR Grace Currie recently graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Choral Music Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At Illinois, Grace was the president and undergraduate conducting assistant of the UI Women's Glee Club under the direction of Dr. Andrea Solya. She also sang in the UI Chamber Singers under the direction of Dr. Andrew Megill, and she managed all social media accounts for UI Choirs for 1.5 years. With the UI Chamber Singers, Grace performed in Vienna and Budapest in collaboration with the Conservatory at the University of Vienna. She is passionate about educating middle school and high school students and watching them grow in their knowledge, skills, and love for choral music. Grace is the recipient of the Outstanding Senior in Choral Music Education award at the University of Illinois School of Music. Her role at the Ad Astra Music Festival this season is possible through a grant collaboration between the Kansas State Research and Extension Office, the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, and Nex-Generation whose mission is to provide paid summer internships to undergraduates in Western Kansas.