By Patrick Sullivan | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
They stormed onto the stage 20 years ago, and today they still command name recognition and respect among musicians around the globe. Along the way, Evah Pirazzi strings helped restart growth at one of the violin world’s oldest family-run companies—Pirastro GmbH, founded in 1798.
When violinists talk about the Evah Pirazzi, one word comes up a lot: power. That ability to project is a key reason they’re used by soloists like Vilde Frang, Augustin Hadelich, and Nicola Benedetti—and why they’re a common choice among orchestra players who need to compete with the brass section.
Strong projection was built into the Evah Pirazzi for a simple reason. Musicians were offering Pirastro emphatic feedback on the German-based company’s earlier synthetic-core string, the Obligato. “The Obligato was a great success, but people were saying, ‘Make it more powerful,’” says Annette Müller-Zierach, Pirastro’s managing director, who is part of the sixth generation of the Pirazzi family to run the company. “So we set out to design a soloist string.”
Launched in 2000 during the Musikmesse trade show in Frankfurt, the Evah Pirazzi were an immediate success. Sales increased greatly during the first ten years and then continued to rise slowly but steadily. It’s now one of Pirastro’s best-selling products. String players around the world are familiar with the iconic green-and-black package, which features a striking and enigmatic painting of a woman’s face. That face belongs to Annette’s mother, Eva, as painted by her father, Volker. “My father had been in sales, but he was also a painter who graduated from art school,” says Müller-Zierach, who bears her father’s German name rather than her mother’s. Her father has played a key role in all of the company’s designs and graphics, his handwriting serving as the company’s distinctive font.
While Annette’s mother’s name is Eva, they named the strings “Evah” to include the first initial of every member of the immediate family, including Annette’s brother, Henning, who also owns and runs the company.
That’s emblematic of how deeply family is embedded in Pirastro’s operations. The original company was founded in 1798 by Giorgio Pirazzi, Annette and Henning’s great-great-great grandfather. A miller’s son born in the Italian town of Domodossola, at the foot of the Alps, Giorgio began studying string making at age 14. At that time, there was a strong connection between the Italian region where Giorgio was born and Frankfurt, Germany, says Müller-Zierach, so Giorgio set out to establish his company in the Frankfurt area.
“Frankfurt was a closed town, though, and wouldn’t allow new craftsman to come in,” says Müller-Zierach. But at the invitation of a wealthy landowner, Giorgio established himself in the nearby town of Offenbach, just a few miles outside Frankfurt. He located his workshop near a river because that was crucial for making gut strings. “You always needed a river to clean the guts,” says Müller-Zierach. “There was no means to store the gut or make it durable. You had to get fresh guts all the time and clean them all the time.”
Giorgio’s business grew steadily. In the 1890s, his grandson Gustav joined forces with a friend, Theodor Strobel. The pair combined the first four letters of each of their names and rechristened the company “Pirastro.” After Strobel died, Gustav’s son Hermann—Annette’s grandfather—took over the firm, leading it through the chaotic 1930s and ’40s. Pirastro’s factory was destroyed by bombing in the Frankfurt area during World War II. The company rebuilt, and by the 1970s its strings were selling so briskly that a second factory came online.
But, Müller-Zierach says, Pirastro was slow to adjust to changes in the market, which began embracing synthetic-core strings in the 1980s. Pirastro had continued to focus on gut strings, and sales stagnated.
That changed when Annette’s parents—Eva and Volker—took over in 1992. “They had a fresh set of eyes and turned over every stone at the company,” says Müller-Zierach. “They did a lot of research into synthetic-core materials.”
They also listened closely to string players. “Our customers are the dealers, but my parents wanted to hear directly from the musicians themselves,” says Müller-Zierach. One key tool was a simple email address—info@Pirastro.com—that goes to the technical director’s computer. “We’ve answered every email ever since the early days of email,” says Müller-Zierach. “Today we’re all used to the internet, but back in the ’90s that was unusual. It was so useful to hear what musicians were thinking.”
“With Tonica, we gained some success,” says Müller-Zierach. “The Obligato and the Evah Pirazzi [came next]. They had a new synthetic material core that we developed exclusively with our supplier.” The materials at the core of most synthetic strings are typically made of the same synthetic grains. But how those grains are developed into a fiber can be very different. “We continue to work with our supplier to develop the fibers the way we want them,” says Müller-Zierach. “That’s one of the key factors. We understand this material really well.”
While Pirastro is today one of the last big gut-string makers, the move to synthetics was key to helping the company flourish. Growth has been strong since the Obligato and Evah Pirazzi were introduced. Pirastro doesn’t make sales figures public, but the number of employees at the company’s two factories has shot up 70 percent since 1995.
Müller-Zierach herself joined the company in 2002. And she says that while Pirastro has enjoyed considerable success in recent decades, challenges lie ahead. “Automation is one of the big themes that will play out for us,” she explains. “You need to have an open mind and try to understand the new technology.” That’s one reason why Pirastro designs and builds its own machinery. “That allows us to use the machinery to influence the sound of the strings,” Müller-Zierach says. The company, for example, uses different kinds of machinery for the Evah Pirazzi and the Evah Pirazzi Gold.
Another key challenge lies in differences and changes in global tastes. In France, Müller-Zierach says, there’s a preference for a bright and open sound. “The other extreme is England and Germany, where they like a warm sound,” she says. But worldwide, she sees a broad shift going on. For years, musicians were requesting more and more powerful strings. “I think that trend is slowly reversing,” she says. “They want to explore more subtleties and more elegant sounds.”
To meet that demand, the company came out with Evah Pirazzi Gold, a lower-tension synthetic string. “We want the projection but we also want more of the noble sound that the Obligato has,” says Müller-Zierach.
String making has long been a global industry, she notes. “Some of the customers my grandfather dealt with in Asia we still work with today,” she says. But, pointing to the coronavirus crisis, Müller-Zierach notes how unpredictable the global marketplace can be. And that, she says, requires a strong focus on flexibility and innovation. “The success of today is the result of yesterday’s work,” says Müller-Zierach. “Today, we need to defend our market share of the future.”
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