WMU Conductor Finds Musical Haven In Kansas During Pandemic

Jul 24, 2020

Austin McWilliams
Credit Ad Astra Music Festival

Austin McWilliams had recently earned his master's degree in choral conducting from Western Michigan University and was working for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra when COVID-19 abruptly ended all musical activity within a few days. In a conversation with Cara Lieurance, McWilliams remembers getting the news that other schools were shutting rehearsals down, and after one final choral rehearsal, so were his. It was quite a blow. The much-anticipated performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion was going to bring together hundreds professional and student performers just before Easter for a work which hadn't been presented in decades. 


Trudy Furney's "Seventh Angel" statue in Russell, KS.

But there was something to look forward to: a summer in Russell, Kansas, population 4,000, presenting an innovative music series called the Ad Astra Music Festival. McWilliams, who is the festival director, explains that the rural festival adjusted to the pandmic in a way that will allow performers to come together to do live concerts online. He's excited to conduct a sneak peak of a new opera based on the outsized, tragic life of  beloved local art teacher Trudy Furney, whose unsettled final years were marked by a belief in UFO abductions and the imminent return of Christ to Kansas. The opera of her life is being written by Anna Pidgorna and Maria Reva.

McWilliams will present a sneak peek of the Trudy Furney opera on Saturday, July 25 at 8:30 pm, on the Ad Astra page on Facebook.