The stage was set in the little Kansas prairie town of Russell. The headlining musical of the Ad Astra Music Festival’s 2022 season, The Fantasticks, had just begun.
Two women sat in the orchestra pit. One keyed the piano. The other plucked a harp.
Both have a passion for music. One sang the lead role during a production of the very same show for her community theater in the 1980s and teaches music in Russell. The other, a Yale graduate, had just won the International Harp Competition the week prior and was preparing to start a tenure-track professorship at Florida State University in the fall.
Though seemingly from different worlds, these two women were brought together in a small Kansas town, through the melodies flowing through their instruments.
Ad Astra: To the Stars
The Ad Astra Music Festival was founded by Russell, Kansas native Alex Underwood in 2014. The festival connects professional classical musicians across the country with local students, community members, and musicians in an array of performance projects.
Underwood first realized his own passion for music with a little help from his grandmother, who taught him how to play the piano in the first and second grade.
Underwood felt at home in music.
“My mother would say that I wore out a couple of cassette players,” Underwood said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “I would listen to music over and over and over and over.”
Underwood went on to study music at Sterling College in Kansas. He returned to Russell to teach middle and high school choir until 2012 when he went to graduate school at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has since begun work on his doctoral dissertation in choral conducting at The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
The festival itself began as a small hobby project.
Underwood planned the first year of the festival while living at his parents’ home the summer before moving to Illinois for his doctoral studies. He raised $7,000 and put together five performances with his music contacts from high school, college, and the Russell Community. The festival was a hit.
Underwood didn’t plan on making the festival an annual event, but folks in the community and the festival’s visiting performers inspired Underwood to keep the concerts coming.
“[After the first festival] they started asking ‘are you going to do this again next year?’” Underwood said.
That momentum led Underwood and his volunteers to formally organize, brand, and name the festival.
The festival’s name pays homage to its Kansas prairie setting. The Kansas state motto, Ad Astra Per Aspera or ‘to the stars through difficulty’, is all about overcoming hardship to reach a worthy goal.
Underwood’s festival has many goals.
Through his studies and travels across many different parts of the country, Underwood feels he returned to Russell with a valuable perspective.
“I have a little mantra: reclaiming, reimagining, and reinvesting,” Underwood said. “I see myself as part of a group of people who’ve left their rural spaces and have returned and are trying to accomplish these things.”
Music for Everyone
Each year, Underwood aims to arrange a relevant and accessible program, with a focus on collaborative projects that combine the talents of famous professionals and passionate locals.
This year’s lineup included:
the girl in brown who walks alone: a choral production that centered Kansas native Amelia Earhart and her courageous story as the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, performed by the Ad Astra Chamber Choir, Russell Community Choir, and High School Honor Choir at a local church.
Jazz at the Barn: the festival’s signature event where folks travel to an old barn in nearby Dorrance, Kansas to enjoy cocktails, popcorn, and jazz music from a Russell native and his friends from Kansas City in the golden light of sunset.
The Fantasticks: the festival’s first ever musical theater production including performers both visiting and local.
Paul’s Case: an English opera based on a short story by Nebraska author, Willa Cather that follows the tragic story of Paul, a queer teen in the 1900s who steals his father’s money and runs away to New York to escape his grip.
Handel’s Messiah: the festival’s big finish, featuring a classical piece that was restructured to allow the audience to associate the music with different stages of grief, that they could reflect and journal about in their programs, all of which took place at a beautiful nearby cathedral.
Clockwise from top left: Patrons enjoy Jazz at the Barn; Pat Underwood, grandfather to Alex Underwood, attends Jazz at the Barn; Kai Kaufman sings his aria during a semi-staged production of Handel’s Messiah; The cast of The Fantasticks, the first musical produced by the Ad Astra Music Festival; The chorus for Handel’s Messiah in rehearsal at St. Mary Queen of Angels Catholic Church. (All photos courtesy of Alex Underwood.)
Underwood hopes each performance resonates with all types of people.
“If you are a music nerd and you know everything about classical music, we hope that what we’re presenting you is going to be engaging and moving,” Underwood said. “But we also need to make sure that somebody who’s never heard any classical music, and is maybe averse to even listening to it is going to be able to walk in off the street, sit down, and listen to something and be moved and transformed just as anyone else would be.
Underwood also knows that he can trust his rural audience, and avoids “dumbing it down.”
“Just because they may be undereducated [musically], they’re still people who have rich thoughts,” Underwood said. “And time and time again the reactions from the community are absolutely overwhelmingly wonderful.”
Another major goal of the festival is to integrate visiting artists into the community.
Almost all of the professional performers live in host homes provided by the community members of Russell, Underwood said.
Underwood remembers one year when a baritone from the inner city of Philadelphia, Lucas DeJesus, lived with a farming family for the month of the festival.
DeJesus was enchanted by life on the prairie, Underwood said. “And [by] the fact that he could have steak for lunch everyday, hop on the gator and drive around the pasture checking on the cattle and pigs, and pet the farm dog who comes and greets him everytime he comes home.”
He also enjoyed the nightly glass or two (or three) of whiskey on the porch, where these new friends talked about the world and issues by the light of a pollution-free sky full of stars, Underwood said.
The family also learned from DeJesus. “They got to meet each other and confront worlds they know very little about, and they become friends,” Underwood said.
“When we’re talking about the complicated political divisions in our world, there’s no way [they] can’t humanize each others’ stories,” Underwood said. “When we’re talking about conservative, small-minded rural people, he has somebody else in his mind to fight against that particular narrative. And when she’s hearing stories about inner city crime and danger, she has a human to think about to counter that narrative.”
Underwood is realistic. He knows that he’s not changing the entire world, he said. But he does think that he can begin to heal his own community and thinks the Ad Astra Music Festival is a model others could extend to their own communities, big and small.
Underwood hopes performers leave with a brighter vision of rural areas filled with senses of generosity and connectedness.
“Our [recreation] commission gives them a free gym pass for a month, the local grocery store donates hundreds of dollars of gift cards to start their groceries while they’re in town,” Underwood said. “And someone bought coffee and breakfast for them every single morning of the entire festival at our local coffee shop.”
Members of the community are even known to buy performers their drinks at the bar at the end of the day. And this year, someone asked for all of the names and addresses of the performers so they could write thank you notes to every single one of them, Underwood said.
“There’s just this amazing hospitality,” Underwood said. “They’re just so appreciative to have somebody there.”
Underwood believes the festival gives community members a place at the table, or perhaps even a seat in the orchestra, within the classical music community and culture.
“I hope they feel like they deserve to hear this sort of work,” Underwood said. “That they can find joy in it and know that they are allowed to have that joy.”
For the younger members of his community, Underwood aims to spark musical inspiration.
“I think about how transformative [Ad Astra] is,” Underwood said. “Especially for young people who maybe don’t feel accepted or included.”
One young member of the community choir finished up her first year as a music education major in college. Underwood overheard her telling a visiting artist that she’s “grown up with Ad Astra.” That it’s part of her identity and the reason she is pursuing music education.
Another community member just finished up his first year as a voice performance major at the University of Southern California on a full tuition scholarship. He sang with Ad Astra throughout his upbringing and had a main role in the 2018 season, Underwood said.
Plans for a Tenth Season and Beyond
From making the festival an annual event, to housing performers in host homes, to the community acclaim, the Ad Astra Music Festival has grown in ways that Underwood never imagined, he said.
“First of all, it’s something that I can’t do alone, which is humbling,” said Underwood. “And also rewarding at the same time that we have a team of people who are so devoted to what we’re doing.”
According to Ad Astra’s website the festival has seven artistic staff members, and this number doesn’t include the numerous volunteers, families, and performers that help out each season.
But Underwood’s favorite part of the festival might be the community’s positive reception. He also hopes to attract an audience from other parts of the state.
“The pride that the community takes in the festival is really touching to me,” Underwood said. “I would love for all Kansans to see the festival as their own place to go and hear interesting art, at a really high level, in a small place they should visit.”
As Underwood and his crew begin to plan the festival’s mile marking tenth season, he is also keeping his eye on a deeper melody that runs through Ad Astra’s musical score.
“I really think about [music] as fostering understanding and [a] more peaceful and just world in front of us,” Underwood said. “I realize that I sound cliche. But I also have seen it work. I know the power that music has and I want to keep living into that, expanding that, and investing in that.”