CARACAS (Reuters) - Many of the finest performers in the classical music world are flocking to Venezuela to get a taste of the country's lauded youth music education system that teaches kids from gritty streets to play in orchestras.
Over the next few weeks, a string of eminent musicians will visit the capital Caracas for concerts with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra conducted by 28-year-old Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, one of classical music's hottest properties.
It is Venezuela's premier youth orchestra, made up mostly of teenagers picked from a network of such orchestras set up around the South American country to teach music to children.
The musicians, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Grammy-winning pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Itzhak Perlman, will be seen by thousands of budding players from the network of music schools in poor neighborhoods that is known as "the system."
In the system, students from across the country -- from distant Amazon villages to tough Caracas slums -- are recruited to join music schools in which they are given an instrument to play as part of an orchestra.
In recent years, it has been supported by President Hugo Chavez. About 300,000 children are now involved.
"The system has generated a true phenomenon," said Jose Abreu, who founded it in 1975. "World-famous conductors and soloists request to come, they feel proud to take part."
"Emanuel Ax a year ago, for example, was inaccessible, impossible to even dream of contracting, with giant costs, and now he asks to come here, this is now a profound phenomenon," Abreu added.
Abreu started developing his teaching method to get youngsters off the street with a classical musical education focused on ensemble playing.
Perlman, an Israeli-American violinist often said to be among the greatest of the past century, was given a roaring ovation by children from the program brought by bus from all over the country to watch rehearsals this week.
Perlman on Tuesday accompanied Dudamel's orchestra playing Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Beethoven's Violin Concerto. He will give another concert on Wednesday playing Mozart and Beethoven.
"The kids, the young people are so eager to make music and so serious," Perlman told reporters on Wednesday. "I'm kind of speechless."
"I hope so, if they will invite me," Perlman said when asked if he would return to Venezuela.
Proponents say participating in the youth orchestras teaches the children discipline and boosts their self-esteem.
The children continue to attend regular school. Teachers say the music education has markedly reduced truancy even in slums with some of the highest murder rates in the world.
Dudamel leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has shot to rock-star levels of fame with rapturously received concerts heading the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra across the globe. Youth orchestras inspired by Abreu's methods are being set up in places including Los Angeles, Scotland and Spain.
Editing by Will Dunham