Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the current military standoff in the desert lend an unhappy topicality to the exhibition "Islamic Art and Patronage: Treasures From Kuwait," on view at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore through Feb. 17.

But the topic of the show is irresistibly topical in itself: the artistic legacy of Islam across a great temporal and geographic sweep. If an art exhibition such as this -- a high-quality mix spanning a millennium -- has next to nothing to teach concerning the conflicts of the moment, its subtle lessons nonetheless deflate the accusatory norms of international discourse at a time of impending war. Besides that, it is very beautiful, and moving. CLASSICAL Two major musical anniversaries will be observed this week. Beethoven's birth will be celebrated today at the Netherlands Embassy with the Washington Music Ensemble performing some of that familiar composer's less familiar music. Antonio Stradivari's death will be commemorated Monday and Tuesday at the National Academy of Sciences, with the Juilliard String Quartet, under the auspices of the Library of Congress, performing on four of his great instrments. The Juilliard's guest artists in these free concerts will be double bassist Edwin Barker and pianist Gilbert Kalish.

The National Symphony Orchestra's "Holiday Pops" program, Wednesday and Thursday in the Kennedy Center, is likely to include everyone's favorite seasonal tunes, but most of the other holiday concerts this week will focus on relatively unfamiliar music. They will include: Hanukah at the Kennedy Center, tonight; the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra and Smithsonian Chamber Chorus, performing Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Saturday night in the National Presbyterian Church; "A Medieval Christmas," presented by the Folger Consort, Tuesday through Sunday at the Folger Library; the Choral Arts Society, tonight, Friday and next Sunday at the Kennedy Center; the Paul Hill Chorale, performing Christmas music from the British Isles, Tuesday and twice on Saturday at the Kennedy Center.

An unusual program of early music from Latin America will be presented by Hesperus with soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, today at Meridian House International. Lamoreaux will also perform with pianist Margaret Otwell, Wednesday night at the German Embassy. Also worth noting: Jubilate, today at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House; Oscar Shumsky, violin, with pianist William Wolfram, tonight at the National Gallery; the Capitol Woodwind Quintet, Wednesday noon at the National Building Museum.

Pianist of the week: Barry Snyder, today at the Phillips Collection. DANCE The Washington Ballet's charming, traditional "Nutcracker" continues its run at Lisner Auditorium today, resuming Tueday through Dec. 29. Also today, the Dance Place Moving Company offers a Choreographers Showcase and other repertory at Dance Place. The Donetsk Ballet, a splendid professional troupe from the Ukraine -- it made headlines last year when it got stranded in Baltimore on its first U.S. tour -- presents its own version of "The Nutcracker" at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House Wednesday through Sunday, with a company of 50 dancers, full orchestra, and guest stars from several Russian troupes including the Kirov Ballet and the Moscow State Ballet Theatre; the Donetsk artistic directors are prize-winning dancers Vadim Pisarev and his ballerina wife Irina Dorofeyeva. Other "Nutcracker" productions in the area or within reach this week include those by the Maryland Ballet, the Richmond Ballet, and the Maryland Youth Ballet. FILM In conjunction with the Kennedy Center honors, the AFI has launched a retrospective of films of two of its most recent recipients, Katharine Hepburn and Billy Wilder. The program, which began on Dec. 1 and runs through the month, features some of the film giants' better-known work, including "Little Women" and "Sunset Boulevard," plus less-seen films such as Hepburn's "Summertime." The films will be screened at the AFI Theater at the Kennedy Center. For information on show times, call 202-828-4000. POP MUSIC Boozoo's not a clown, but a zydeco delight named Chavis; today at the Birchmere.

Marshall Crenshaw has a new album coming out this winter, so when he performs acoustically at the 9:30 club today and tomorrow, there should be some new songs in his bag.

Special Beat brings together members of the English Beat and the Specials for a little Two-Tone magic: Tuesday at the 9:30 club.

Young trumpeter Wallace Roney hasn't gotten as much publicity as contemps Marlon Jordan and Roy Hargrove, but he's very much in the same class: at the One Step Down Friday and Saturday. THEATER Paul Zaloom is a performance artist who can really perform. He has a voice he can twist up into falsetto or down into resonant radio-announcerese. He plays against his sardonic, world-weary deadpan with crack comic timing. And he's a goofily inventive puppeteer. In "My Civilization," at the Studio Theatre through Dec. 23, Zaloom shoots for political satire and hits the much more difficult target of delight.

Zaloom satirizes a lot of worthy targets -- the S&L scandal, the conflict in the Persian Gulf, the National Endowment for the Arts. But as a satirist he's merely entertaining; his brilliance lies in his mad whimsy. Zaloom creates a nuclear power plant from three blenders and a humidifier. His Guggenheim Museum is a hubcap. Props seem to spring out of his swift, graceful hands, to take on surreally unpredictable new functions. Zaloom is like a T-shirted god, manipulating his universe of found objects. He's about "art" as well as "performance" -- the restlessness of creativity, the creativity of play.