ART

"Titian: Prince of Painters," the rich sampling of his pictures on view at the National Gallery of Art, is shaped like a crescendo. Grand at the beginning, it's vastly grander at the end.

It closes with a painting of pure, redemptive horror. "The Flaying of Marsyas," once again in Washington, must be among the strongest, strangest paintings of all time.

That summarizing masterpiece -- with its knife-cut flesh, its lap dog lapping gore and its boilings of pure paint -- tears the viewer's heart. No straight-edged laws of order, no rules we can discern, govern this great picture. All here is liquidity, and churnings of emotion. The blood-dimmed air is seething. The actors in this drama aren't formed of solid, polished stuff set in crystal space, but of palpitating light. Titian, from the start, had peered beyond mere surfaces. Here, in his last painting, he tears away the skin of things. The world itself seems flayed.

The exhibit is on view through Jan. 27. CLASSICAL MUSIC

Rarities of the week will include several world and Washington premieres. The National Gallery Orchestra, celebrating the 50th anniversary of free concerts at the Gallery, tonight will give the world premiere of Daniel Pinkham's Symphony No. 4, and the DeReggi Inter-Arts Ensemble Friday and Saturday will perform the works of two French composers, Francoise Barriere and Christian Clozier, at the French Embassy. Handel's oratorio "Joseph and His Brethren" will have its first Washington performance today as the final concert of the Maryland Handel Festival in the Memorial Chapel of the University of Maryland.

The National Symphony Orchestra has changed its program for this week and will devote the first half of its concerts to a tribute to the late Leonard Bernstein. The second half will be Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, as originally planned.

"La Boheme," the Washington Opera's second production of the season, will have its opening Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The week's other operatic attraction is "La Traviata," performed by the Prince George's Opera this afternoon at Prince George's Community College and Tuesday night in Lisner Auditorium.

FILM

The Black Film Institute continues its series "From Harley to Hollywood: Three Generations of Black Filmmakers in Perspective" with "Def by Temptation" at 3 p.m. today at the Biograph. James Bond III, who wrote, directed, starred in and produced this horror film, will be on hand for the screening. He plays a divinity student who visits New York City, where he is pursued by an ancient demon seductress (Kadeem Hardison) who has been reborn to cruise singles bars. The program continues at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow with a screening of "The Comedians" at the University of the District of Columbia. A story of political terror set in the Caribbean, it is based on the Graham Greene novel and stars Elizabeth Taylor, Raymond St. Jacques, Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. Bill Gunn's "Ganja & Hess" will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at UDC, followed by a lecture by Manthia Diawara of the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. Based on the movie "The Vampires of Harlem," it was branded as "blaxploitation" in the United States, but later was heralded as cinematic art at the Cannes Film Festival. Call 202-727-2396 for more information.

The American Film Institute will present four films at the Kennedy Center by producer Doris Chase, whose works examine aging among older women. Priscilla Pointer will be featured in "Still Frame" and Joan Plowright in "Sophie" at 8 p.m. tonight. Chase will introduce a special screening of "The Good Earth," a film with Oscar-winner Louise Rainer, tomorrow evening, following a screening of "A Dancer," a Chase film in which Rainer plays a dancer facing the end of her career. Chase's "Table for One," starring Geraldine Page as a woman dining alone in a restaurant, will be paired with Peter Glenville's adaptation of "Summer Smoke" on Tuesday evening. Chase will discuss Page's performances. Call 202-828-4090 for more information.

POP MUSIC

Bob Gordon, bassist for the '60s band Grin and currently very ill, gets a much needed boost (financial and spiritual) tonight in a special Bayou benefit featuring the Nighthawks, Tom Principato and a few special guests.

Are you ready for the '60s? Redd Kross and the Posies turn back the clock tomorrow at the 9:30 club.

Will Miami's "octogenarian rappers," the 2 Live Jews, outdraw the 2 Live Crew? Check out the Bayou Tuesday.

Fleetwood Mac, featuring Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie (perhaps for the last time), is at Capital Centre Wednesday; same night, the earthy and delightful 10,000 Maniacs, are at George Washington University's Smith Center.

Brave Combo, who have made the world safe for polka music, world beat and other off-the- wall diversions, come to the 9:30 club Thursday.

Texas songwriters Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen and Townes Van Zant, turn the Birchmere into a casual workshop Friday. Saturday, Gordon Bok, Ann Mayou Muir and Ed Trickett turn a similar trick, with an East Coast slant, at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church.

Los Lobos are roots-rocking again, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is thumping, and the Lisner Auditorium should be full Friday.

Two local lights shine bright Saturday: Virginian by way of Ethiopia Aster Awake celebrates the release of her new Columbia album at Kilimanjaro's; supremo saxophonist Buck Hill does the same for his new Muse album at Dumbarton Church.

THEATER

"Love Letters," playing at the National Theatre, is not just a moving and funny chronicle of love among the WASPs, but a play that reaches out to touch the Yalie in all of us. Playwright A.R. Gurney, the bard of the plaid pants and martinis set, pokes fun affectionately and pointedly, and in the end we unexpectedly find ourselves dabbing (discreetly) at tears, sorrowing at the loss of love and friendship.

"Love Letters," with Colleen Dewhurst and E.G. Marshall, plays through next Sunday.