“Say what?” is a typical reaction when I tell folks about the 26-year-old conductor from Venezuela with next to no formal training who was recently appointed as the next music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “Surely you jest,” they say.

No, I don’t.

Gustavo Dudamel is the genuine article. Finnish conductor Essa-Pekka Salonen — whom Dudamel will succeed at the helm of the LA Phil come 2009 — has called him a “conducting animal.” Sir Simon Rattle, the English maestro who now leads the Berlin Philharmonic, described him as “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever met.” He’s won prestigious conducting competitions, guest-conducted some very classy orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic last weekend), and is already busy with his first serious gig as principal guest conductor of Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony.

Everywhere he goes, his players (even the older ones, like the cantankerous musicians of the New York Phil) play their hearts out for him. The Venezuelan wunderkind is the hottest buzz of the classical world these days — along with the world-renowned music education system that produced him.

It seems Venezuela has more going for it than just lots of oil and their Bush-bashing leftist president. They call it simply “El Sistema” — short for the nationwide network of 220 youth orchestras and associated music schools serving around 250,000 children. Most of these kids are impoverished, often homeless with little hope of a decent life. But they’ve had a way out, since 1975, when musician and social visionary Jose Antonio Abreu got things going, offering even the most wretched of his country a chance to learn an instrument and play music. Now it’s a wildly successful, win-win institution, the nation’s pride and joy.

Cream rises, as everywhere, to the top. Dudamel’s rocket-ride — beginning as an 8-year-old violinist — launched him to the conductor’s post by age 17 with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra: the nation’s (and South America’s) best ensemble. His players — all fellow products of the system — range from their mid-teens to early twenties. They’ve played (all over the world now) works like Gustav Mahler’s bipolar Symphony No. 5, Richard Strauss’ huge Alpine Symphony and Dmitri Shostakovich’s devastating Symphony No. 10 ­— all to gushing public and critical acclaim. Prestige record label Deutsche Gramophon has (even in a bleak CD market) released two of their recent recordings. Another star from among their ranks is double-bassist Edicson Ruiz, who ­— at age 19 — is the Berlin Philharmonic’s youngest-ever member.

Even better than all the musical glory are the profound social benefits El Sistema has provided. Mastering any musical instrument develops self-discipline and a joyful work ethic — and playing in an orchestra teaches cooperation and teamwork in pursuit of a lofty goal: making good music.

Even kids who don’t make the top musical ranks often find their personal salvations along the way, discovering that there are other productive ways to apply their new skills and visions. None of Venezuela’s leading politicians have dared tamper with the system in over three decades: There’s no arguing with such radical success. The music world is lining up to study El Sistema, looking for ways to apply its universal lessons back home.

This is the lesson musicians have been trying to preach to politicians and school boards for years — yet music budgets continue to suffer in most American schools. You’d think folks wouldn’t have forgotten that kind of wisdom here in Charleston, where the kids of Jenkins Orphanage and their legendary jazz band put themselves and their city on the musical map nearly a century ago. The results were the same: Give a gifted kid an instrument, teach him how to make music, and watch his life take a sharp turn. Let’s hope Dudamel can help drive that lesson home again.